What Reality TV Teaches Teen Girls

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Ian Spanier / MTV

Of the many aspects of American culture reflected in reality television, actual reality is not one of them. But not every viewer knows that: a new survey by the Girl Scouts Research Institute finds that some 8 out of 10 girls who regularly watch “real-life” shows like Jersey Shore and The Hills or reality competitions like American Idol believe these programs are true to life, describing them as “mainly real and unscripted.”

That kind of innocent viewing may have an impact on young girls’ self-image, the study suggests. It may also influence the way they perceive their own relationships and their understanding of the way the real world works.

In terms of high drama, for instance, girls who watched reality TV came to expect it in their regular lives. They also tended to accept and expect more aggression and bullying, compared with girls who said they didn’t watch any reality TV. The study found that 78% of regular viewers agreed that “gossiping is a normal part of a relationship between girls,” compared with 54% of non-viewers. Sixty-eight percent agreed that “it’s in girls’ nature to be catty and competitive with one another,” while only 50% of non-viewers thought so. And 63% of reality TV viewers said “it’s hard for me to trust other girls,” compared with half of non-viewers.

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To some extent, the survey participants — 1,144 girls aged 11 to 17 — were conscious that reality shows set a bad example. Three-quarters of the respondents said such shows “make people think that fighting is a normal part of a romantic relationship”; 86% said they “often pit girls against each other to make the shows more exciting”; and 70% agreed that reality TV makes “people think it’s okay to treat others badly.”

Still, there was evidence that regular viewers tended to internalize these negative behaviors. A higher percentage of reality TV viewers (versus non-viewers) were likely to agree that being mean or lying was key to getting ahead:

  • “You have to lie to get what you want” (37% vs 24%)
  • “Being mean earns you more respect than being nice” (37% vs. 25%)
  • “You have to be mean to others to get what you want” (28% vs. 18%)

How many girls are watching reality TV? According to the survey, girls’ viewing rates roughly mirror those of the general population: 47% of survey participants said they were regular viewers, 30% said they watched sometimes and 23% said they rarely/never watched.

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When it came to self-image, the influences of reality TV appeared to be complicated. Across the board, regular viewers were more self-assured than non-viewers. Most viewers considered themselves mature, smart, funny, outgoing and a good influence. They were also more likely than non-viewers to aspire to leadership and to consider themselves role models for other girls.

But regular viewers also tended to place more value on physical appearance, with 72% of reality TV watchers reporting spending a lot of time on their appearance, compared with 42% of girls who didn’t watch reality shows. About 38% of reality TV viewers also agreed that girls are valued based on their appearance, and 28% said they would rather be recognized for their outer beauty than their inner beauty (28% and 18% of non-viewers, respectively, said the same).

“The girls on these shows are looking bigger than life, perfect hair, perfect make-up, and girls are saying why am I not like that?” said Caeley Looney, a Girl Scout and high school sophomore, who sat on a panel about girls and reality TV, sponsored by the Girl Scouts of America last week in New York City.

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It wasn’t all bad news, however. Most respondents said that watching reality TV served as a learning tool and inspired conversation with their parents or friends. Sixty-eight percent said that reality programming made them feel that they could achieve anything in life, while nearly half said reality shows “help me realize there are people out there like me.” Further, according to the report:

Seventy-five percent of girls say that reality TV depicts people with different backgrounds and beliefs. Furthermore, 65% say such shows introduce new ideas and perspectives, 62% say the shows have raised their awareness of social issues and causes, and 59% have been taught new things that they wouldn’t have learned about otherwise.

The study didn’t say what those “new things” were, but if previous research is any indication, they’re likely to help foster a future generation of reality stars.

Meredith Melnick is a reporter at TIME. Find her on Twitter at @MeredithCM. You can also continue the discussion on TIME’s Facebook page and on Twitter at @TIME.