Lately, it’s been on my mind how reality TV and social media affect people’s mental health.
After seeing people talk about it non-stop on social media, I binge-watched the dating reality TV show, Love Island — all five seasons — last summer.
It’s such a fun little tropical escape for me. For a few sun-drenched weeks, 20-something UKers looking for love live in a villa in Mallorca, Spain (this season, they’re in South Africa). To win the game, contestants have to be in a couple at the end. The audience votes for their favorite couples throughout the time and the most popular couple wins 50,000 pounds. The popular show now has a U.S. version as well as an Australian version.
It’s fun to watch couples fall in, and out, of love. It’s touching to watch friendships form. The drama, the tears, the giggles, the “sexy times.” 😉 It’s like Big Brother but for dating.
But there’s a looming dark side of reality TV and the intersection of social media and mental health that needs to be addressed.
For five seasons, Caroline Flack was the host, a spunky, smiley, bright-eyed blonde. But if you saw her come to the villa, you had a bittersweet feeling because you knew people were going home.
Love Island is currently filming its 6th season, but Flack is not the host. Last December, she was charged with common assault because of an argument with her boyfriend. She was going to trial next month.
Flack has been in the public eye for years, long before Love Island. The prolonged scrutiny from social media and the UK paparazzi and tabloids took a toll on her mental health.
Flack was found dead in her London apartment on Saturday, February 15th.
Her death has made ripples of grief in the UK and across the world. And it rocked me. I’m still in a bit of shock I had watched hours and hours of this show, and now she was gone.
Within the past couple of years, two former Love Island contestants had died by suicide. In light of these three deaths, as well as the other deaths by suicide from participants from other reality TV shows, there’s more scrutiny on how the sudden fame, along with social media and the press, negatively affect people and their mental health.
ITV, which produces Love Island now gives social media and financial training and more therapeutic support during and after the show, but is it enough to protect contestants’ mental health?
Hours after I heard about Flack’s death, I watched this gut-wrenching Instagram video from UK celebrity, Stephanie Davis. She’s endure similar scrutiny and ahs called for changes with the how the UK press covers people.
To have random people critiquing your body, your dating choices, and wishing you were dead, it can wear down the strongest person. We’re wired to connect so it takes a lot to just “ignore” what people say, especially when it’s hundreds, or thousands, of people.
One thing I’ve observed online is how people dogpile on each other. It can seem like a chapter out of The Lord of the Flies or a re-write of the short story, “The Lottery.” You have to be perfect: perfect body, perfect speech, perfect relationship.
It can be incessantly cruel and ruthless. And many times, it’s women of all races, along with other marginalized groups who are targeted. And it’s not just celebrities who go through this. I’ve seen this behavior happen with groups of professionals, where people will take criticism so personally, they’ll react in kind.
The only exception I have to critiquing people is people in authority. It’s like the rule of punching up for satire and jokes. Afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted.
But reality TV stars who aren’t being hateful, or really anything? Maybe the anonymity of the internet can embolden people’s worst impulses. But it’s probably something else, too.
There’s something about how social media has us tuned into each other 24/7/365 in a way that wasn’t available 20 years ago.
As humans, we’re not created to be “on” all the time. We have time apart, time by ourselves, time with our loved ones and friends, time with our colleagues. But having access to each other, on demand, via social media is new.
And we’re not dealing with it well.
Social media somehow hijacks our sense of self. We can start feeling the compulsion to groom ourselves for a steady stream of approval through likes and retweets and shares. And strangers can hijack that growing need and take advantage of it with insults.
This isn’t even to say that Flack or anyone else who has died by suicide were chasing likes. It’s more that just putting yourself in the public eye, in a micro or macro way, can leave you vulnerable to hateful, merciless trolling. And if you already have a history of mental illness, then you’re even more vulnerable to the negative effects of social media.
I’m not really here to figure out why people are cruel to strangers, or even to their colleagues. We know what that does to us, that social media can negatively affect anyone’s mental health. But I am here to join the outcry to end online cruelty and to practice kindness.
All these deaths remind me to think about how I interact with people on social media, too. Kindness to me is not about abstaining from critique altogether. Sometimes, people are cruel and need to be called out. But critiquing strangers on their looks or dating habits doesn’t make sense. You wouldn’t do that on the street, right?
Social media can give us this false sense of familiarity. You may see people, famous or not, every day, maybe even more that your loved ones, and you think you know them. It’s probably because of how social media makes us feel like we’re all connected to each other, all the time.
But, you really don’t. You really don’t know them. You only know as much as they’re willing to share.
On a TV show like Love Island, where participants are being filmed 24/7, there’s another false sense of familiarity that develops with the audience. Viewers may think they actually know how these people date. Because they’re dressed for the beach or the nightclub most of the time, we may even think we can lay claim to their bodies.
But unless they know them personally, they really don’t know how they are offline or, as they call it, “on the outside.”
What’s most likely being observed is the stress and sometimes deteriorating mental health of those being filmed and produced non-stop for weeks. Even on this season of Love Island, one of the contestants has spoken out about how the show has taken a toll on her.
#BeKind is a hashtag that has grown popular in the UK after Flack’s death, a battle cry to make social media a kinder place. And this outpouring of grief over her death, as well as the disgust with the behavior of UK media and people on social media — it’s really affected me.
I’ve been using social media since 1997 and it’s been sad and strange to see how it’s changed. I’ve gone from intimate chat rooms with strangers who became close friends to places like Twitter and Facebook. They started great at first. But now, it’s a mishmash of friends, acquaintances, colleagues, family members, and a plethora of strangers who may or may not have our best interests at heart.
Now children are cyberbullied by their peers, adults are harrassed and doxed by strangers, and bot farms create tsunamis of misinformation. Even Snapchat realizes the intersection of mental health and social media.
It’s so much more complicated now.
Humans haven’t evolved as quickly as technology. We’re still quite hypersocial and social media takes advantage of our need to be connected. We sometimes don’t have the proper boundaries to know when to get offline, when to not take what anyone says so personally, or when and where to find appropriate affirmation and approval.
And this is where kindness comes in.
When it comes to our online behavior and personas, we really need to give each other a little more of the benefit of the doubt. It’s as minister and author Ian Maclaren says: “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.”
It’s also that we’re hypersocial beings, as independent as we think we are. We really do need each other, as a species, for survival.
Social media can bring people from all over the world together in one virtual space, and it’s beautiful. But it can also bring out trolls and haters from the darkest corners of the web.
In such an uncertain world, we need each other more than ever. Social media can distill who we are down to just pixels. But whether we log on or off, are in the public eye or not, we’re still people.
Let’s work together to respect each other and keep our collective humanity.
If your life has become overwhelming, remember that you are not alone. Help is available, right now. Contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255.
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