John Oats, Senior Lecturer in Developmental Psychology at The Open University writes for The Conversation about the psychological risks of reality television, following the news that The Jeremy Kyle Show has been taken off air.
The psychological impacts of participating in broadcast productions can be much greater than broadcasters and producers may realise. This was evident in the recent events in the UK surrounding The Jeremy Kyle show and the decision by ITV to axe the programme after the death of one of its guests. Children, vulnerable people and general members of the public can suffer long-term effects from participation in these kinds of reality show, and broadcasts can have serious unintended consequences not only for them but also for family, friends and work colleagues too.
Allegations from former participants of perfunctory screening question that have missed pre-existing mental health issues, alleged “wind up” methods in the Green Room to incite conflict before a show commences, have previously been reported. So-called “aftercare” procedures have also come in for criticism for being brief, or consisting of “phone calls from junior members of the production team” – testimonies that have also been supported by former members of the production team. All this seems to be evidence of systematic neglect of the most basic of moral principles: “Do no harm.”
The Jeremy Kyle Show isn’t the only reality-based show to come in for criticism about a failed duty of care by programme makers. Another series of the hugely popular ITV show, Love Island, is still in the works despite the suicides of two former contestants, Mike Thalassitis and Sophie Gradon. On Twitter, former Love Island contestant Malin Andersson questioned the level of care given to people on the show: “Do we have to wait for one more death before other shows are axed? Or can’t we just put in some extraordinary aftercare in place to prevent any deaths from occurring ever again.”
Do we have to wait for one more death before other shows are axed? Or can’t we just put in some extraordinary aftercare in place to prevent ANY deaths from occurring ever again.
— Malin Andersson (@MissMalinSara) May 15, 2019
It is a sorry situation that it has taken a death (or deaths) to bring this more out into the open, and for the government to now take steps, through the inquiry launched by the Digital Media Culture and Sport Department, to delve into this murky world in television and to hopefully find ways and means to encourage and perhaps enforce better standards of practice across the broadcast media industry.
Heading off harm
There is a wide range of potential harms of participating in broadcast productions, especially for people other than professional actors and celebrities (who may be more versed in tackling the pressures of being in the media spotlight).
Following public concerns about possible harms to children in performances arising from the series Boys and Girls Alone – a Big Brother-style programme featuring 20 children aged eight to 11 – a 2010 Thane Review led to the English and Scottish governments establishing working parties to develop legislation and regulations analysing psychological risks to under-18s featured in performances, including television appearances. I contributed to this on behalf of the British Psychological Society (BPS). Our finding was of multiple risks, including harms such as distress, trauma, negative attitude change, moral damage, lowered self-esteem, embarrassment and loss of dignity, disempowerment, insecurity, anxiety, engendered fears, mental stress/fatigue, and peer disapproval or bullying. This led to changes in regulations and reference in Ofcom guidance for under-18s in UK.
Because there is a licensing process for child performers, local authorities are involved in ensuring that proper risk assessment and mitigation is in place for every performance. Chaperones, psychological screening, support and aftercare are all recognised and required parts of harm avoidance processes.
But there is nothing like this in place – either in legislation or industry best practice national guidelines – for adults, some of whom, if not many, will have vulnerabilities and little understanding of the risks they will encounter when taking part in broadcast shows. The risks identified for children apply also to adults, and recent events have shown this clearly.
A further issue, not yet widely discussed, is the impact on audiences of viewing scenes such as those in The Jeremy Kyle Show. Research has shown strong effects of broadcast media on audiences. To give just one example, a TV parenting series was found in a carefully controlled experiment to bring about substantial and long-lasting positive effects for families. Psychologist Albert Bandura, best known for the Bobo Doll experiments in the 1960s, showed how behaviour displayed on screen is easily modelled in everyday life. In his experiments, Bandura showed how children mimicked aggression in real life that they had seen on screen.
So convinced did he become about the importance of this that he then started working with broadcasters to explicitly work socially positive narratives into productions. But what does sitting passively watching adults being goaded into interpersonal strife, denigration and dysregulated emotional outbursts do for the million or more viewers? Can we not expect at least some degree of desensitisation? And what about the effects on children and young people? There is little research that can directly inform us about this, although Bandura’s work offers a strong theoretical reason to strongly suspect negative effects.
While current concerns about harms are dominant, there are good examples of best practice in broadcasting, and I have been privileged to be able to help many productions to think through very carefully how to minimise harms, and indeed to maximise benefits for participants.
Ten years working with the production team for the BBC/Open University Child of Our Time series opened my eyes to the care taken throughout to ensure that the families were happy with how they were portrayed and that a thorough duty of care protocol was followed before, during and for some time after each series. This experience encouraged me to establish the British Psychological Society Media Ethics Advisory Group, made up of a group of psychologists with extensive media involvement. We work with productions at all stages and help to ensure that properly qualified and experienced psychologists work with productions, registered with the Health and Care Professions Council when necessary.
In collaboration with the major broadcasting channels, the Producers Alliance for Cinema and Television, and some of the major independent production companies, we have been developing a guidance framework for commissioners and producers: Psychology and Media Productions. This is shortly to be launched and will be promoted through the media industry.
It takes special experience and skills to identify the risks to people in productions, to screen potential participants, to monitor their reactions during recording and to provide adequate aftercare. Where mental health issues and risks are implicated, our guide will stress that only psychologists with relevant experience, qualifications and appropriate membership of a professional body should be given responsibilities for safeguarding participants.
Psychologists can play an important role also in programme planning, to ensure that risks are minimised, and harmful effects avoided from the start, with appropriate safeguarding being an integral part of the production. The BPS maintains a register of psychologists available for such work and hopes to play a role in the upcoming government enquiry.
Broadcasting has immense power for good in the world. Now seems an apt time to turn away from showing anything that stigmatises, denigrates, or otherwise harms the mental health of people – not just participants, but audiences too – and to reinstate values of respect for the autonomy, dignity and privacy of people.
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John Oats, Senior Lecturer in Developmental Psychology at The Open University