Exploitative reality shows degrade us, too


The excruciatingly public marital troubles between Jon and Kate Gosselin reached their predictable denouement Monday when the reality television stars announced their impeding divorce before an audience of 10.6 million.

After 10 years of marriage and two years of filming Jon & Kate Plus 8, the parents of 8-year-old twins and 5-year-old sextuplets denied that the constant intrusion of cameras into their private life had precipitated their split or exploited their children. And true to form, the couple assured viewers that the divorce would not interfere with their hit cable series. As Kate Gosselin said gravely, "The show must go on."

That stomach-churning spectacle may prove the last hurrah of this unseemly series, which increasingly has relied on tabloid coverage of the couple's marital woes to boost ratings. If a ratings freefall does not kill the show, legal troubles might: Pennsylvania authorities recently began investigating a complaint about child labor law violations involving the eight Gosselin children, who spend long hours under the glare of the spotlight to satisfy their parents' hankering for money and fame.

It's easy to mock the Gosselin parents and fret over their children, who never asked to have the most painful moments of their childhood broadcast for the world's amusement. But those children are not the only victims of shows like this one. Our children, too, are endangered by a media culture that promotes voyeurism as entertainment and exalts exhibitionists as role models.

In their new book, "The Mirror Effect," addiction medicine specialist Drew Pinsky and business professor S. Mark Young argue that following the foibles of reality TV stars and other celebrities is not a wholly harmless pastime. The more time we spend observing the shocking, materialistic and egotistical behavior of reality TV stars, they argue, the more likely we are to mimic that behavior in our own lives and view the pathological self-centeredness of these "Joe Six-Pack" celebrities as normal.

That's troubling, since most reality TV stars are anything but normal. In a 2006 study published in the Journal of Research in Personality, Pinsky and Young used the Narcissistic Personality Inventory to assess celebrity egoism. They found that reality TV celebrities ranked highest in narcissistic traits, surpassing even rock stars and actors.

Reality TV's celebration of egoism and exhibitionism contributes to the fame-at-any-cost mentality that afflicts many teenagers today. According to a 2005 survey by The Washington Post, Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation and Harvard University, nearly one-third of American teenagers believe they will be famous someday. In Britain, a 2006 Learning and Skills Council study found that more than one in 10 teenagers would forgo an education or training for the chance to appear on TV, and nearly one in 10 consider fame a "great way to earn money without skills or qualifications."

How can we curb such destructive fame-chasing? Celebrating a child's legitimate achievements rather than his attention-getting antics is one strategy. Enforcing child labor laws against camera-crazed parents like the Gosselins is another.

Even among younger children, that lust for fame has fueled some disturbing trends, from "sexting" -- the practice of sharing naked pictures of oneself or others via cell phone -- to the online posting of "fight videos" by bullies who videotape themselves in the act of brutalizing their peers.

How can we curb such destructive fame-chasing? Celebrating a child's legitimate achievements rather than his attention-getting antics is one strategy. Enforcing child labor laws against camera-crazed parents like the Gosselins is another.

When it comes to mitigating the effects of exploitative entertainment like "Jon & Kate Plus 8," the simplest solution may be the one proposed by Kate Gosselin's brother, Kevin Kreider, who recently made a public appeal on behalf of his nieces and nephews. Urging Americans to remember that the Gosselin children are "not fictional characters," he acknowledged that "Jon and Kate obviously will not quit [the show] on their own."

"So please," Kreider said, "stop watching."



Colleen Carroll Campbell. "Exploitative reality shows degrade us, too." St. Louis Post-Dispatch. (June 25, 2009).

Reprinted with permission of the author, Colleen Carroll Campbell.


Colleen Carroll Campbell is an author, television and radio host and St. Louis-based fellow at the Ethics and Public Policy Center. She is the author of The New Faithful: Why Young Adults Are Embracing Christian Orthodoxy. Colleen Carroll Campbell writes for a wide variety of national publications, speaks to audiences across America, and hosts her own television show, "Faith & Culture," on EWTN, the world's largest religious media network.  Her website is here.

Copyright © 2009 Colleen Carroll Campbell

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