Reality TV has long been regarded by critics as the lowest form of entertainment. It’s slammed as drivel for our minds – television that celebrates the shallow, vain and ridiculous. Even fans often refer to it as a “guilty pleasure”.
But there’s no doubt that Love Island has become the TV smash hit of the summer, drawing in audiences of two million and getting everyone from Liam Gallagher to Jeremy Corbyn talking. Even my 87-year-old granny with a penchant for pinnies and pottery is LAPPING it up.
So why are so many people drawn to this brand of television? Is it just for pure entertainment? Or could it also offer some much-needed escapism for the mind?
I struggle with anxiety and finding ways to switch off. It’s often exhausting to be in my mind when it’s working overtime, obsessing over a problem of the day or fretting about something in the near future.
Reality shows like Love Island help me relax and unwind. Maybe it’s because they offer a window into someone else’s life, making my own problems momentarily disappear. And when I asked my friends, many agreed. Not only is reality TV entertaining but it can also provide a mini-break for the mind.
Shows like Love Island are often safe places where nothing that bad happens. People’s biggest worries are whether their crush fancies them back or if the covers are going to fall off the bed when they’re humping like rabbits. No one’s fretting about paying a bill, getting their foot on the property ladder or dealing with a terrifying health concern.
Two million people finding enjoyment from something like 'Love Island' cannot be a negative.
When BuzzFeed asked its community in 2015 which TV shows help them through depression, fans suggested reality series such as RuPaul’s Drag Race and Ace of Cakes and praised them for being a positive distraction and lifting their moods.
So what do the experts think? Could reality TV in small doses actually be good for our mental health?
Psychologist Emma Kenny argues that yes, it can. She says: “In a world where we can easily get stressed, it’s hard to not fixate on the past or fret about the future. But what reality TV can offer is some much-needed cognitive escapism. It gives our mind a little time off from the stress of everyday life. You can be entertained and have your mood boosted. Two million people finding enjoyment from something like Love Island cannot be a negative. The fandom with reality TV can offer us a sense of community and a sense of connection. Mindfulness in its most basic term is being focused in the present. People shouldn’t fret about enjoying something that isn’t constantly intellectually stimulating or view it as a guilty pleasure. Mindfulness in its most basic term is being focused in the present. If reality helps you achieve that by distracting you momentarily from your past problems or potential future stresses, then I can only see that as a positive.”
Obviously, I’m not advocating reality TV as some sort of cure for mental health issues or saying that doctors should start handing their patients prescriptions for nightly doses of Love Island. I don’t watch an episode and, like magic, am suddenly cured. It’s only a matter of time before something will trigger my anxiety again. But for that brief moment, reality TV helps me switch off and offers my mind some respite. And as Emma Kenny argues, I can only see that as a positive.
I know many people could argue against my views on reality TV. Some of my friends feel it has the adverse effect. They find the focus on conflict and confrontation too stressful. Or they say a cast of impossibly beautiful women leaves them feeling inferior and insecure by comparison.
Psychotherapist, life coach and couples counsellor Hilda Burke notes that while cognitive escapism is a positive, becoming too reliant on something like reality TV could also be destructive.
She says: “Reality TV can be an enjoyable way for the mind to unwind. You can liken it to a glass of wine with a friend. The only concern is that with mental health, it’s important to focus on longer-term solutions. Becoming reliant on something like reality TV could prove destructive if you start bingeing on episodes to feel positive. But if you can manage it wisely and it doesn’t become something that impinges on your life, then I see it as a positive."
She adds: "If something gives you enjoyment and entertainment, then that’s a huge positive for your mental health and mood.”
You only have to look on social media to see the wealth of tweets from fans praising Love Island for getting them out of a bad mood, helping them unwind or just being a source of comfort after a shit day at work.
Because let’s face it, life can be tough (have you seen the news lately?). And if something as simple as reality TV offers you a form of escapism, entertainment, relaxation or mental relief, then I say watch with pleasure.