12 March 2001
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Daily Telegraph

Be scared, really scared
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  • Be scared, really scared
  • By ANNA PATTY
    10mar01

    IF you've heard your kids calling each other "the weakest link" or voting each other "off the island", you know it's already happening.

    The humiliation and exclusion being promoted in the latest surge of reality television programs like Survivor and The Weakest Link are changing our lives, as well as our language.

    According to pyschologists, this type of television is equipping children, as well as adults, with a new vocabulary that ultimately leads to a community acceptance of anti-social or bullying behaviour.

    Following the example these programs set, you could imagine crowds watching Eric "the fish" Moussambani swimming his hardest in the Sydney Olympic Pool last year screaming out, "loser" or "the weakest link", instead of cheers of encouragement.

    The fact the Equatorial Guinea swimmer could barely finish the men's 100m, let alone come close to challenging any other competition times, led to him being held up as an underdog hero. Olympic organisers called it a celebration of humanity.

    Sure we loved and celebrated the winners, but the athletes running last in their races often received even bigger roars of applause and encouragement.

    The latest reality television entertainment fad challenges that type of audience/competitor dynamic by tapping into our baser instincts.

    The competition is based on survival of the fittest and the audience gains vicarious pleasure from watching people suffer.

    Which is nothing new. It's what Roman colosseum audiences thrived on.

    But whereas the Romans watched blood being spilled, modern Australian TV viewers are getting their kicks from watching people suffer public humiliation and exclusion by their peers.

    Adopting a Lord of the Flies model, the Survivor program plotted a small group of self-governed people against each other on an island in the first series and in the Australian outback, for the second.

    The group collectively votes someone off the island or the outback each week until the most manipulative person survives.

    In The Weakest Link program, host Cornelia Francis calls on contestants to vote each other off a television set, sparing them no humiliation with her sharply dismissive "goodbye".

    According to Sydney clinical psychologist, Janet Milne, the Darwinist values and language being used in this latest TV fad is not without some sinister consequences.

    Ms Milne, who specialises in children's issues said the "weakest link" phrase was in wide usage.

    "People are already starting to copy the idea," she said.

    "We know from studies that showing kids violent videos can increase their aggressive play in a daycare situation. Children watching these [reality TV] shows could find their sense of values distorted, particularly if they are watching a lot of it and without parental guidance."

    While there is no evidence to suggest reality TV shows could actually cause children to bully each other, the fact that adults set the example on the programs may have the effect of validating the behaviour.

    "It gives children a socially acceptable vocabulary for socially unacceptable behaviour," Ms Milne said.

    "I think it is likely to lead to victimisation and bullying by giving children a language and a justification for engaging in discriminatory behaviour."

    The vicarious pleasure for viewers of Temptation Island is different. It is the pleasure of watching others give into adulterous weaknesses when four couples put their relationships to the test in an exotic Caribbean location, in situations where they hardly stand a chance.

    Dr Stephen Juan, an anthropologist at Sydney University, said it was difficult to understand why couples would put themselves to such a test.

    "You have to be mad to do that," he said.

    "There's enough pressure on relationships without putting yourself through those sorts of temptations.

    "These programs are voyeuristic and demeaning to people who are humiliated and dismissed.

    "It's like those sadistic television programs in Japan.

    "It's a concern that such soul-destroying programs are now a common feature of Australian television.

    "When it's on adult television, kids think it's okay to treat other people that way and model their behaviour on those shows."

    Federation of Parents and Citizens Associations president Bev Baker said reality TV was reconstructing community values.

    "These programs are telling kids that if you win you grin and that it doesn't matter who's back you stand on to win, because winning is everything," she said.

    "While we have anti-bullying programs in schools, we now have shows promoting the bully and winning at all cost.

    "Because if you lose, people are going to gang up on you and pillory you."

    Roger Cook, a senior lecturer in psychology at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, said while there was no psychological research into the effect of the latest craze of reality viewing, the programs were putting a bigger responsibility on parents to monitor their children's behaviour.

    "Watching these shows, it's not taboo anymore to be rude and insulting to friends," he said.

    "The programs are requiring parents to be more vigilant in dealing with the aftermath."


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