It continues to amaze me that reality television has been as popular as seems to be. Many of the shows support the opposite of what people say they want in their “real lives”, yet people must watch them or the television producers wouldn’t keep on producing them.

I was recently asked what I thought about children watching these types of shows, especially a recent show which has been apparently rating well, called Married at First Sight.

I remembered watching the show a few years ago, when the first season came out. As a psychologist, I spend a lot of my day talking to people about their relationships – whether it be their spousal relationship, their working relationships or relationship with their family or friends, so I was curious about how the show would be presenting relationships.

It has always been a curiosity of mine, the idea of an arranged marriage and whether an arranged marriage could be as successful – or perhaps more successful than a relationship where the person has chosen their partner. I believe that in some cultures, it continues to be the way of things that your spouse may be chosen for you.

The basic premise of Married at First Sight is that couples turn up to their own “arranged marriage” – to their own wedding, having never even seen the person they are about to marry. The premise on its on creates a bit of hype, wondering if you were offered the opportunity, what you would choose? What would it be like? So, you have the opportunity to voyeuristically see what it is like for people – the anxiousness and worry before the wedding, and waiting to see how they respond to each other over the following weeks of what they call, “the experiment” throughout the show.

One of my memories of the first episode was that there were a number of couples who seemed genuine in their pursuit of a relationship. Though, one couple stuck in my mind, where the woman in the couple would over-dramatise her apparent needs and wants, and disappointments until the man in the couple could either stand up for himself, or give in. It made me cringe to think that her experience seemed to overshadow his needs and wants. She appeared to show a real lack of empathy, and it left me concluding that this was the reason she hadn’t found a successful relationship previously. I didn’t really want to watch the show much after that. I think one of the couples remained together which was of more interest to me, wondering what made them successful in relating to each other.

From the little I have seen of the current season it appears that the cast were selected for their propensity for drama. It makes sense that people who might step forward for a reality TV show like the idea of seeking attention, and if we give them the benefit of doubt that perhaps they are aware that the more dramatic that they can be, the more air time they will be given.

Should we allow children to watch reality TV?

I wouldn’t think that the show is catered toward children viewing it. At times the couples are quite emotionally abusive to each other, and in one scene I witnessed two of the women being quite horrible to each other. There was nothing in the way that they were treating each other which could provide valuable relationship skills in a couple relationship or even for friendship.

The risk of children being exposed to such shows is that they become desensitised to the behaviours and possibly believing that it is an acceptable way to solve problems. Children tend to play out what they see and hear, what they are shown in their world. They tend to experiment with it and if it works keep doing it. They often need our help to distinguish between what is acceptable and what is not acceptable.

It is true that we have long had stories for children which demonstrate that there can be some “bad people” in life, however, there is usually a helpful message in the story. For example the antagonist in the story may show us to be wary of such people in terms of characters like the wicked witch in “Snow White and the Seven Dwarves”, or the wolf in “Little Red Riding Hood”, The difference is that there was usually a resolution that could be understood as “when you get the right message you get a good result”.

In “Married at First Sight” Jess makes a great villain. She’s duplicitous and untrustworthy and justifies what she does by espousing a value, “like being friends” to get her way. She shows a high ability to manipulate and be self interested, which is what makes her a poor match for a relationship.

I can appreciate that It’s like junk food for the mind. As adults we can know it doesn’t make us feel good but we do it anyway – we can get caught up in the injustice and the physical arousal – it’s something humans have been doing for years venting and gossiping about “badly behaved people”- but we know neither venting or gossiping makes us feel good – neither are healthy for our mind.

Can kids be upset or traumatised by reality TV?

Kids don’t necessarily make good distinctions about what they are viewing being real or not real. Just as a child may become distressed by seeing someone in the same room as them be emotionally abusive, they could be distressed by what they are seeing on television, but wont necessarily speak up about it.

We would want to avoid placing them in that type of situation in their real lives, so why expose them to it via television.

Perhaps of more concern is the kids who have been exposed to emotional trauma in their everyday lives. They are more likely to see emotionally abusive behaviour as “normal”, and show physiological arousal in response to these situations. Watching similar on television could provide a trigger for invoking memories of their previous experiences of emotional trauma.

What can we do to help our kids grow up with good relationship skills?

I believe that we want our kids to develop good relationship skills in order to feel happy about their sense of belonging and engage well with their friends, and in the long term – their future partner.

What to do:

1. Model for your kids values like generosity and kindness (avoid demeaning or putting your spouse of other people down)

2. Teach empathy – that is, to teach an understanding of the others point of view

3. Explain how to respond to people who don’t hold positive values – that is, how to be assertive and negotiate the terms of the relationship to something that works for both parties.

4. Help your kids recognise people who do not hold positive values and encourage them to realise they can choose people who do hold positive values.

Revive Health and Happiness has a team of psychologists who are all well experienced in dealing with stress and trauma and have a variety of strategies to help and support you in managing stress that is getting out of control or of course, anything else that is troubling you or your loved ones. Contact our friendly team now to talk about how we can help.