How to teach the reality TV generation?

15th March 2013 at 00:00
Lured in by glamour, gossip and a heavy dose of interactivity, it's no wonder teenagers love reality television. But is it changing their approach to learning?

In the 1990s, Mike Judge's animated commentators Beavis and Butt-Head became famous for two things: their acerbic reviews of MTV videos and their stupidity. In 2011, Beavis and Butt-Head returned, unchanged, to a changed world. They confronted something largely unheard of during their previous incarnation 20 years earlier: reality television.

In one of the new episodes, the pair watch the woeful MTV programme 16 and Pregnant. Two of the show's male protagonists, who may be charitably described as "limited", are discussing their future prospects now that their respective girlfriends are expecting. Butt-Head turns to Beavis and says: "These people are dumber than we are."

Beavis and Butt-Head were originally drawn as caricatures of the absolute lowest expectations anybody might have had for teenagers. But in comparison with many of the reality television characters inhabiting today's entertainment landscape, they appear as models of self-aware erudition. Could it be that, in the 20 years that elapsed between the show's two manifestations, culture - and particularly teen culture - has regressed that much? And can we learn anything about the ambitions and future of this generation from their apparent preference for inhabiting such an intellectually barren cultural landscape?

Most importantly, how will this affect their interest in education and their relationship with their schools?

Whatever kind of monster you think it is, reality television is unarguably a monster: Big Brother, The X Factor, The Only Way Is Essex (or TOWIE), Made In Chelsea, The Apprentice, Come Dine With Me, Strictly Come Dancing, Geordie Shore, Jersey Shore, The Real World, The Real Housewives . the titles alone could fill these pages.

The relationships that adults have with reality television have been deconstructed and discussed to death: the genuine one, the ironic one, the anti-ironic one, the anti-anti-ironic one and so forth. For teenagers - as my interviews with stars, producers and adolescent consumers of reality television confirmed - it is both simpler and more complex.

Teenagers are avid consumers of reality television, and are watching it in a way that is unrecognisable to previous generations: I wanted to find out if what they are consuming is harmless fun or something more damaging.

"Television is awash with reality television," acknowledges Nick Samwell- Smith, creative director at Initial, a production company owned by Endemol, the originator of Big Brother. "This makes the viewers more discerning and the challenge for the producers of television harder. For every success story, such as Big Brother and The Only Way Is Essex, many more fall by the wayside or never get made at all."

One side effect of the technology revolution is that today's viewers - and particularly younger viewers - have notoriously short attention spans. "I decide in the first 10 minutes if I like one of those (reality) programmes," says Aman, 14. "If it looks crap, I probably won't bother watching again."

How should teachers cope with this? Unsurprisingly, most teachers report an increased need for them to include a technological element in lessons - such as using laptops or carrying out internet research projects - both to aid understanding and to drum up enthusiasm from students. Perhaps more than ever before, this short attention span evident in teenagers requires broken-down lessons packed with different activities to ensure the engagement of even the brightest students.

Although an adult viewer might say the same about their attention span, they are less likely than a teenager to be simultaneously engaged on FacebookTwitterMSNgame consoles. And so television aimed at teenagers has to work harder to be heard above the competing clamour. "I hardly ever remember what I watched the night before," says Cassie, 14. "I'm always texting and Facebooking at the same time."

Easy access

The instant and expansive nature of modern entertainment also seems to be inculcating an apathy to independent and imaginative thinking and learning. Why read a book on something when there's Wikipedia? Why learn the play when you can watch the film? Why build a tree house when there is an Xbox? When I put this to the children, they were all in agreement: the easiest option is best. As nine-year-old Jake says: "Only creepy kids and weirdos play make-believe."

This is a generation that doesn't think, read or play without artificial - specifically, electronic - stimulus. More than any audience before, this generation is shaping its entertainment as much as being shaped by it. This is key to understanding the popularity of reality television among teenagers.

Reality television and modern entertainment have become bizarrely empowering for teenage viewers: this, in turn, makes them even more distracting and addictive. The popularity of this interactivity suggests that perhaps it could be a style of learning that teachers and schools would find worth exploring. If children of all ages get so much satisfaction from autonomy in their entertainment, could that be reflected in the way they learn and how well they learn?

Online social networks have narrowed the gap between "stars" (relatively speaking) and their audience. The ready access that people now have to their favourite television andor pop performers provides a sense of inclusion that makes idols seem more like mates. This relationship is not entirely illusory. Both producers and players in reality television pay close attention to the opinions and trends of their audiences. These undoubtedly influence the development of the programmes and the characters. "Each episode of TOWIE," says Ruth Wrigley, the show's creative and executive producer, "generates an average of 70,000 tweets."

Unlike soaps, reality television is character-driven rather than plot- driven, so if the audience decides that a particular character or relationship is a breakout success or a calamitous failure, this is known immediately and acted upon almost as quickly. Teenage audiences are well aware of the power they wield. One girl I talked with compared it to "that Sims game, where you create your own little world". And while there may be an element of deluded fantasy at play here, any viewer of TOWIE - or any of the other shows in question - exerts far more control over their entertainment than the audience of EastEnders does.

Thus, teenagers no longer conceive of television as a broadcast-and- receive medium, but instead as one of interaction. The question for teachers, heads and educationalists is how this changes the role of the classroom practitioner imparting information from the whiteboard.

This changing relationship is something that the reality stars also have to get used to.

"It's a lot like real life," says Sam Faiers, model, boutique owner and one of the original stars of TOWIE. "You have good days and bad days. But if you have a bad day, you can come back in the next episode and make up for it. If you remain true to yourself, the audience will like you and your fans will support you. I have a lot of really loyal teenage fans who chat to me online all the time."

However, the teenage audience's power was spoken about less positively by a well-known male star of another popular reality show who preferred to remain anonymous. "They make snap judgements on whether you are a cunt or a hero. It often doesn't make any sense and there isn't much you can do about it," he says.

Both Wrigley of TOWIE and Samwell-Smith at Initial agree that reality television has a fixation with binary good and evil characters, going back to the relatively innocent days of "Nasty" Nick Bateman, villain of the first series of the UK version of Big Brother in 2000.

What has changed since then is that people have constant access to the stars, and to other people discussing the stars. Twitter-trolling has become a favourite teenage pastime. The young people I spoke to generally believed that reality television stars take their fame too seriously - which may be why, more often than not, they rise to bait posted on Twitter. To quote one comment, representative of many: "The best part about reality TV is that you can tell all the wankers that they are wankers."

Depressingly, the casual cruelty of Twitter's online playground is being mirrored in actual playgrounds, and in how children interact with each other online. Cyberbullying has skyrocketed in the past five years - the i-Safe Foundation reports that one in three teenagers have experienced some form of cyberbullying. Bitching about reality stars in all media legitimises similar behaviour at school, with "grown-ups" such as singer and presenter Tulisa Contostavlos demonstrating to all how not to behave.

One of the attractions of reality television has always been its fairy- tale aspect - the idea that anybody can be another Susan Boyle or Rylan Clark. The aspiration of easy fame and wealth is so omnipresent among this generation of teenagers that for some it undermines academic ambition and even effort: you do not need GCSEs to go on a talent contest or reality show. A friend told me that one of her students missed a vital modular exam and came in with a parental note saying he had not made it because of the more pressing matter of attending an X Factor audition.

Where many adults are merely baffled by reality television, some - generally the parents of daughters - are concerned by it. Stars such as Paris Hilton, Kim Kardashian and the indistinguishable lodgers of Hugh Hefner's Playboy Mansion appear to do little but glorify all that is superficial, self-indulgent and tacky. Dr Helen Wright, head of St Mary's School in Wiltshire, said recently: "Ms Kardashian sums up almost everything that is wrong with Western society."

Teenagers have always been fascinated by glamorous characters. But women who become famous for starring in a leaked sex tape, for having an ample behind or for being heavily intoxicated seem to be more admired than the millions of worthier women in the world. Show pictures of Angela Merkel or Aung San Suu Kyi to any class and you are met with a row of blank faces. There is some middle ground - they all know and love Michelle Obama, Jessica Ennis and Lady Gaga. But while these women are all worthy role models, they are also undeniably beautiful. Reality television merely reinforces physical attractiveness as the principal yardstick for measuring female success.

`Sexless' allure

Discussing sex and reality television with the producers, stars and consumers of the genre raises an unexpected point. Initial's Samwell-Smith argues that audiences have never been enticed by the promise of sex in the Big Brother house. "Love and romance between what is perceived to be a couple genuinely attracted to each other - absolutely. Sex, no."

Certainly, the casts of reality shows might talk about sex incessantly, but no one is actually having it. "Young audiences like the glamour," says TOWIE's Wrigley. "The attainable glamour and the interactions that remind them of their interactions with their mates and potential partners." The views of the male star I spoke to also chimed with this theory - he observed that "reality TV is entirely sexless".

When I put this to the teenagers, they broadly concur. Reality television is dressing up, flirting and silliness, frozen in an endless and quite innocent adolescence. The shoe talk and pubic hair art, the posh nitwits wandering aimlessly around Chelsea, Geordie girls drunkenly falling off their stilettos - all good, trivial fun.

It is such a limited view of the world, and it makes me wonder why the children aren't asking for a little bit more. Is this symptomatic of a gathering inability to engage with anything of depth? But as Layla, 15, says: "Who cares if people think you are thick or the papers slag you off, you're rich and on TV, which is much better than being normal and boring."

I ask TOWIE's Faiers what the highlights of being a reality television star are. As she sees it, there are many. "Going to the Baftas," she says, "the holidays, the red-carpet events, meeting stars like Rihanna, the loyal fans, the opportunities - and of course being famous." Asked if she really feels famous, Faiers replies that she doesn't, but she does mention being "papped" in Marbella, which obviously suggests the contrary.

As the job market shrinks, the economy slides and youth opportunities fade, it is not surprising that the vapid, gaudy tales of reality television appeal to children. But as concerns rise about so-called falling interest in literacy, maths and science, it is important that modern technology and entertainment are not allowed to become this generation's undoing. The glitz of reality television is a fun distraction for an hour, but then actual reality - school, exams, life - beckons.

What can teachers do?

Serious suggestions:

Make a "Where are they now?" diagram of reality television participants to demonstrate that for each one who sells exercise DVDs or gets pictures of their baby in OK! magazine there are many more who have fallen back into obscurity.

Have back-up plan lessons. It is fine for children to have fame-and- fortune pipe dreams - most of them do. But it is probably wise to have an alternative career path in mind and the requisite qualifications.

Point out that fame is not very meaningful now - talking meerkat puppets can become superstars and publish books.

Discuss Katie Price, aka Jordan: a mega-rich, reality television princess, who with every passing year is hated more by the public and looks more like a melting candle. Nothing to gloat about, just really quite sad.

Not-so-serious suggestions:

Divide your class into two groups: the Tramps and the Playas. Tell the children they must earn their way into the Playas by singing Shakespeare sonnets or beatboxing equation solutions.

Buy some high-waisted trousers. When collecting homework, say in a louche, camp voice: "This is the biggest load of crap I've ever seen. Stop wasting my time. Give up now and go and sweep the streets."

Set up a Diary Room in the library and encourage the children to go in there and insult each other and the staff, supposedly in private. Then show the films in assembly.

Stop selling sandwiches and salads in the canteen and start serving dried insects and the body parts of exotic animals instead. Make the children eat them in a competitive way.


Original headline: Reality, as seen on TV

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