Sunday 17 December 2017

Why RTE is so wrong to air this reality show

Shane Dunphy

I watched David Coleman's new RTE television programme, Teens in the Wild, with great interest this week. Coleman is a clinical psychologist with many years' experience dealing with young people, and the method he employs in the show is one commonly used by youth workers.

This is, the viewer is told, a four-part observational documentary series (not a reality show, then) and involves Coleman taking a group of 15- and 16-year-old teenage boys from a variety of backgrounds -- all of whom are displaying behavioural and emotional problems -- to Connemara for a three-week intensive programme, combining therapy with outdoor pursuits such as kayaking, abseiling and orienteering.

According to the show's promotional material, the boys "will learn how to communicate with their peers and instructors, take responsibility for themselves and gain in self-confidence and self-worth". David Coleman says that poor behaviour often stems from low self-esteem. Hence the emphasis is always on "building them up, not breaking them down".

It all sounds fine in theory and, indeed, it could be argued that any programme that aims to demystify the therapeutic process, or helps us to better understand the challenges of parenting, is a good thing.

The participants in Teens in the Wild all display a wide range of problems, many stemming from the nature of the relationships with their parents. Anger management seems to be a recurring theme, and this is, of course, combined with the usual teenage posturing.

The question that springs to mind while watching Coleman and his gang of youngsters is: how can young people work through any kind of trauma in front of television cameras?

Peer pressure is a huge challenge for any adolescent, and is always a primary concern in any kind of group work. Add to this the concept that thousands of people whom the youngster in question does not even know are watching and judging, and you have a whole new dimension of doubt and worry to contend with.

Is it fair to put distressed, angry young people on national television, to air their pain for our amusement? And what motivates us, the viewers, to tune in and watch them?

Coleman's show is far from unique on our TV schedules in placing vulnerable individuals and their families before us, in the name of entertainment, and in attempting to use the format of a primetime slot to sort out their problems.

Daytime viewers will be, by now, well used to the avuncular Dr Phil, who started out as a regular on the Oprah Winfrey Show, but has become an industry in his own right, informing his legions of fans that he can make them thinner, more assertive and much happier, just so long as they buy his books and watch his shows on a regular basis.

Parents under pressure can have their calls for help answered by both the Supernanny and Nanny 911 teams, where fully trained (and often traditionally uniformed) nannies will come to the homes of stressed-out couples with outrageously behaved children, and implement behaviour management programmes.

That these systems of behaviour modification seem to miraculously work within the timeframe of the show begs some serious questions (in my own experience of working with troubled children, such endeavours can require many attempts and adjustments before they achieve success, and some, indeed, never do), not least of which focuses on the morality of broadcasting images of distressed children who are too young and too confused to consent to such exposure.

Not all reality television is dressed up with such therapeutic trappings, although in its early days it still tried to put itself forward as valid social commentary. The first Big Brother, for example, was held up as a kind of sociological experiment.

In some ways, it echoed the trials run by the famous Yale professor, Stanley Milgram, who, in one controversial experiment, created a prison on a floor of his college, giving students specific roles as prisoners, guards, or governors to see how they would respond. Milgram was heralded as a genius by some, and accused of dangerously pushing the bounds of ethics by others. Yet his influence is huge, and can be clearly seen in much of reality TV.

Reality shows in the Big Brother mould are now remarkably widespread. In this format, ordinary people (sometimes these ordinary people are Z-list celebrities; but the crucial point when they appear on reality shows is that they are being themselves, not playing a role) are put in extraordinary situations and their reactions recorded for the viewers' amusement.

All such shows share some common elements: the isolation of the groups from the outside world; a series of tests and tasks that will win food or luxuries; a confessional-style diary room; psychological mind-games on the part of the producers (introducing new participants at times of stress; bringing back people who have been evicted) aimed at pushing the players to even more tense relations with their peers; and, of course, competition. These shows are about winning; about being the last person standing.

This 'last person standing' element is a crucial component of the other ubiquitous reality format, the TV talent show. The X-Factor, You're a Star, Britain's Got Talent, the list is endless. The armchair voyeur can switch these programmes on in the knowledge that, in the early stages of the shows, at least, a large proportion of the contestants will be deluded individuals with no discernable talent, who will be verbally eviscerated by the judges.

And it is this evisceration -- a kind of ritual humiliation -- that keeps viewers returning again and again.

Teens in the Wild is a very different endeavour to The X-Factor or Big Brother; but despite its protestations otherwise, it fits firmly into the reality TV mould. That Coleman has the best interests of the young men at heart is not in doubt. That he has the skills to help them deal with their anger and resentment is certain. That the team he has assembled in Connemara is the best available goes without saying.

But can he --and should he -- do all this in front of the cameras? That is another issue entirely.

Therapy in any form is a delicate interaction based powerfully on the relationship formed between the counsellor and the client. This relationship is built step-by-step over time, with many stumbles and setbacks on the way.

Helping young people to overcome the trauma and hurts of growing up in a fragmented family, where a father has died at a crucial stage in the child's development, or has gone to prison, or where a mother has overcompensated dreadfully to stifle a perceived act of neglect, can mean dredging up deeply painful memories, and facing up to hard truths.

These are personal, raw experiences, and airing them for an audience already bloodied by the mindless dross of Big Brother or the barbed exposition of X-Factor seems cheap and unfair.

But then, maybe David Coleman knows something about reality TV that we don't.

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