Are TV talent shows bad for our children? Yes/No
Shows such as Britain's Got Talent are breeding an army of miniature 'mean girls and boys', say bullying experts.
As rumours abound about Louis Walsh being tipped to judge an Irish version of Britain's Got Talent, bullying experts have condemned the format for turning children as young as six into mean girls - and boys. Watching talent shows such as X Factor and Britain's Got Talent, which returned to our screens at the weekend, may seem like a harmless Saturday night tradition for many young families. But watching judges and studio audiences sneer their way through the auditions of the less-than-gifted is having a damaging effect on child viewers, sociologists and psychologists say.
The X Factor, which drew hundreds of aspiring singers to Croke Park earlier this month in a quest for fame, and its ilk are breeding an army of miniature mean girls, some as young as six.
Long after the credits roll on Britain's Got Talent, these children emulate judges such as Simon Cowell, who slaps the buzzer to separate the useless chaff from the talented wheat, and a baying audience by subjecting their fellow pupils to cutting and judgmental remarks in the playground, according to Dr James O'Higgins Norman, a director of the National Anti-Bullying Research at Dublin City University.
"Competitions like Britain's Got Talent and The X Factor are structured around meanness," says O'Higgins Norman, a sociologist who has written books on bullying in schools.
Young viewers of The Voice of Ireland, where judges deliver their verdicts on auditions from big red swivelling chairs that face away from the contestants, have been treated this year to a harsh cull of wannabe stars. Two-thirds of the finalists were eliminated during the first three live rounds of Ireland's biggest singing competition and contestants were pitted against one another by being compelled to duet on the same song.
"In the old days, a competition was about who did the best and didn't focus on those who didn't do well," says O'Higgins Norman. "From day one, these shows are looking who to eliminate, those who are no good. They have turned popular culture upside down, so being mean is now popular and being nice is not. Children imitate that behaviour by deciding who is in or out of their social group.
"The basic process of wanting to be popular has been around as long as schools have existed. When children are asked who the most popular kids in their school are, they point to the cliques that have set tight boundaries around who their friends are and who cannot be their friends. Girls tend to form these cliques more than boys and they look to popular culture and the media for what it means to be popular these days."
The "mean girl" is no longer the teenage phenomenon depicted in the 2004 film starring Lindsey Lohan, who played an outsider struggling to get to grips with the laws of popularity among an elite group of high-school girls. "Some studies say that girls as young as six are beginning to display these socially aggressive tendencies," O'Higgins Norman says. "These TV programmes are teaching these girls about wider culture and society and what we value and don't value.
"Some research in Ireland shows kids of this age will decide who can play with them and who can't in the yard. They might not call it a 'clique' like we do, but they are saying, 'I'll let you be my friend' or 'I won't let you be my friend'. I think that this has always happened but the way it's expressed has changed because of TV and the internet."
Tanith Carey, the author of a new book called Girls, Interrupted: Steps for Building Stronger Girls in a Challenging World, believes this behaviour is starting at an even earlier age, right from kindergarten.
"This mean girl behaviour is being validated in things like reality TV, where the main entertainment is sitting in judgment of other people," Carey says. "So when our girls sit around watching Britain and Ireland's Next Top Model and The X Factor, they learn that's how you become rich and powerful and they mimic that."
Indeed, reality TV shows contain an average of 85 verbal attacks, insults and snide remarks each hour - almost twice that of comedies, dramas and soap operas, Carey says, citing a study conducted by Brigham Young University in the US. The study also showed that half of these incidents were organised by producers baiting participants into bitching about their rivals.
Such behaviour is rubbing off on impressionable viewers - young children can interpret these dialogues literally and believe that this is how people treat each other in the real world.
O'Higgins Norman is also concerned that popular talent shows are teaching children that fame is easily achieved. "X Factor has produced this understanding that people can be famous for no reason at all," he says. "In previous generations, people became famous for doing something well, doing something unusual or something really bad.
"A lot of young people today think that fame is something you acquire without having to put the work in."
Maeve Corish, the principal of Donabate/Portrane Educate Together National School, also attributes negative influences to the amount of time pupils spend in front of television, tablet and smartphone screens at home. "It's increasingly difficult for parents to bring children up without a huge media influence," she says. "To me, the amount of time and exposure, and content of the exposure, kids have from being online and watching TV is a concern. There is a large amount of judgment in things like X Factor, with people being thrown out of shows for not being good enough."
Children are now so fearful of being subjected to X Factor-style ridicule that they are too scared to sing in front of others or take part in singing lessons, Dominic Peckham, conductor at the Royal Opera House in London, has said.
Peckham, the artistic director of the Royal Opera's youth chorus, has described auditions for the talent contest as a "19th century freak show" that is eroding pupils' confidence. He believes many children expect to see a "giant red X" flash before them when they perform - a reference to the infamous method of ejecting contestants on Britain's Got Talent.
The talent shows encourage a "dog eat dog" ethos that is harmful to youngsters, says psychologist John Wills, who gives talks in primary and secondary schools.
"A lot of children I see are experiencing a huge level of anxiety as a result of people trying to be like that," he says. TV talent programmes are "their compass for what's right or wrong, what's normal or not. With the power of the internet and social media on top of that, what they pick up as normal in their formative years is quite left of centre and just beefed-up sensationalism".
What happened to the winners?
The fame that comes fast from being a finalist on a blockbuster Saturday night talent show can expire just as quickly.
Britain's Got Talent made an unlikely superstar of Susan Boyle, a 54-year-old Scottish woman who silenced an incredulous Cowell with her rousing audition of 'I Dreamed a Dream' in 2009. One Direction only came third on The X Factor in 2010, but the boyband is now one of the biggest-earning acts in the world.
But hitting the big time on either talent contest doesn't necessarily guarantee a glittering career.
Leon Jackson, a former Gap sales assistant, won X Factor in 2007 but was axed by his record label after just one album. A similar fate beset Steve Brookstein, the very first winner of the X Factor, back in 2004. He became a poster-child for the treachery of reality-show-based fame, going on to perform on the Portsmouth to Bilbao P&O cruise ferry. He once played at a cafe with no one watching.
There have also been mixed fortunes for the winners of Britain's Got Talent. While Paul Potts sold two million albums after winning the first series of Britain's Got Talent in 2007 and his life was portrayed in a film biopic, the 2011 winner has not fared so well. Jai McDowall, a former care worker, was quietly dropped by Syco, Simon Cowell's record label, after his debut solo album only reached number 54 in the charts.
Winning the The Voice of Ireland, Ireland's biggest singing competition, is hardly the stuff dreams are made of either. Only dedicated viewers of the show are likely to remember previous winners such as Pat Byrne, Keith Hanley and Brendan McCahey.
Byrne's debut single reached number three, Hanley's came in at number 37, and McCahey's first single reached number 15. Kelly Mongan-McDonagh, who finished second in 2013, is arguably the best known and featured in her own reality series, which captured just how difficult it was to rise to success from a travellers' halting site.