Are reality TV shows like ‘Dance Moms’ destroying kids? Pt. 2

This is a continuation of a story that ran on Friday. To read the first half, click here

 “That can get ugly in adulthood.” 

While Kate Gosselin may have initially seen television as a path to financial security instead of fame (although it can be debated that may have changed over time), mothers on “Dance Moms” and “Toddlers & Tiaras” hardly seem to be putting their kids first at any point in the process. “The argument behind these children being on these shows is that the parents say the kids want to do this,” says Jennifer Powell-Lunder, author of Teenage As A Second Language: A Parents’ Guide to Becoming Bilingual. “Sure they do, because they know their parents want them to do this.” The narcissism many of the mothers on these shows exhibit is likely to have an even greater impact on the kids than the presence of television cameras. “The parents on the show ‘Dance Moms’ are modeling such inappropriate behavior,” she continues. “They’re catty, they’re mean, and they’re teaching their kids that it’s okay to gossip and backstab.” Add to that the nature of the competitions on both shows and it’s a toxic brew. “On both ‘Toddlers & Tiaras’ and ‘Dance Moms,’ they’re applauded for sexualized behavior. It sends a distorted message that you should act like a little adult.”
While it’s easy to assume that, as the children don’t seem to mind their mothers’ histrionics on the shows that they’re simply tuning out said behavior, Dr. Ramani Durvasula, professor of psychology at California State University, Los Angeles and licensed clinical psychologist, says nothing could be further from the truth. “We think children have no idea about the adult behaviors around them, but they definitely have an idea. So much of the attention that’s received on these shows is for negative behavior.” 
Given the screaming, weeping and generally outrageous behaviors exhibited by the parents on “Dance Moms” and the competitive cattiness we sometimes see on “Toddlers & Tiaras,” it’s not hard to imagine some kids becoming a target for teasing. “Managing a social life is taxing enough to children these days,” says John Duffy, clinical psychologist and author of The Available Parent. “Adding the dimension of shame regarding a parent’s behavior can only serve to compound this difficulty.”
“Be yourself, but be yourself in this particular way…”
Combine a TV show with parents who have no apparent interest in boundaries, and issues with schoolmates can be the least of a child’s problems. With no role model to offer substantive guidance, children can find themselves adrift. “The greatest risk here is a sense of entitlement and a lack of empathy,” says Dr. Durvasula. “That can get ugly in adulthood.”
The blurring of reality and fiction is another factor likely to confuse a young child. While many experts have pointed at professional acting as having a detrimental effect on kids, reality TV presents even greater complications. “I think that acting presents a certain clarity for kids,” says Duffy. “‘I’m playing this role for this part of the day.’ There are boundaries around acting, whereas reality TV seems to blur [the] boundaries between reality and entertainment. I’ve got to think that this can be highly confusing to a child. And I think the toll taken regarding impressions of teachers and other adults in a child’s life is immeasurable.”
The increasingly heavy hand with which reality TV shows are scripted just adds to the problem. “There’s clearly been producer intervention to create and exploit negative characteristics on ‘Dance Moms,’ says Dr. Hilary Levey Friedman, sociologist and writer. “Abby Lee, the instructor, has said she doesn’t use the pyramid system in real life, but that she does it strictly for the show. That’s the show purposely creating a situation to make the kids uncomfortable and to magnify issues.” The adults aren’t likely to be the only players being asked to massage their behavior to fit the shows their on, either. “With reality TV, kids have been told ‘be yourself, but be yourself in this particular way,'” says Levey Friedman. “Then, they have to ask if people like them for who they are or do they have to act a certain way to be liked. Children are still learning who they are, and knowledge of the world or of themselves in it is not fully developed.”
That sense of confusion — over a public that tunes in and then out, about self-worth and inappropriate parenting — is likely to linger long after the show goes off the air. “I’ve talked a lot to people who have worked in this industry, and they describe a feeling of emptiness and depression after they’re out of it. That’s from adults. It’s even more confusing for a child who cognitively can’t process what’s happened and is more likely to internalize it, thinking ‘I’m no longer interesting.'”
The children on TV aren’t the only ones affected by outrageous reality programming. Parents who let their kids watch from home may also have some damage control of their own to do. “I don’t think there are enough teaching moments to make watching these shows positive,” says Dr. Durvasula. “Even with all the guidance in the world, I don’t think it’s possible for a kid to figure out what’s going on. I think it’s safe to start a conversation to ask children how they feel about what they’re seeing and to start a discourse… Unfortunately, in any home where a child is being allowed to watch this stuff regularly, it’s probably not the kind of home where these conversations are going on.”