Reality TV stars often partake in on-screen social scenarios that are manufactured to be deliberately provocative. Is it morally sound to put people in these situations in front of millions of viewers?
Love Island has become a national phenomenon since its reboot in 2015, accumulating millions of viewers including unlikely fans like former Chancellor George Osborne and Hollywood starlet Margot Robbie. Along with millions of other viewers across the country, they will be watching avidly as the show hurtles towards the grand finale on 30 July.
Couples will be dumped one by one from the villa, and the series will culminate in “split or steal” scenario that will see the public’s favourite couple walk away with the show’s £50,000 prize money.
The real prize, however, is shared amongst all the contestants, who by virtue of their mere appearance on the show, now have a good chance to make a living flogging teeth whitener and gym routines to their new Instagram followers.
But what really lies in wait for the mercurial twentysomethings in the ‘outside world’? – a place us viewers know to be normality, but which has taken on an almost mystical quality for the isolated contestants.
Viewers may reflect on what a great series it’s been and look forward to the (naturally) recommissioned next instalment of the show –launch episode of this series was ITV2’s most-watched show ever, topping the viewer ratings for its time slot with three million watching – but the ‘reality’ for the contestants is that their lives will never be the same again.
While some may look to capitalise on their 15 minutes of fame, they’re also faced with the prospect of media and sponsorship interest drying up entirely. What kind of support and guidance is out there, if any, for contestants when the cameras turn away and the fairytale ends?
Earlier in this series, viewers were left shocked and disappointed by the premature departure of fan-favourite contestant Niall Aslam, who left the show after just one week, citing “personal reasons”, later rumoured to be stress related.
Just under three weeks later, Niall, who had enamoured viewers and fellow islanders with his endearingly quirky humour, took to Instagram to open up about the details behind his sudden exit.
“For far too long I have suffered in silence and not acknowledged a massive fact about my life which going into the villa has led me to finally realise and accept.”
“When I was a young child I was diagnosed with Asperges syndrome, a fact that until this post, has never been shared outside of my close family. Growing up was extremely difficult for me and I often felt out of place.”
While it is hardly surprising that a person with a suppressed condition affecting their capacity to socialise and connect with other people may be negatively affected by being kept in a villa fitted top to bottom with inward-facing cameras and 10 complete strangers, it’s possible that producers were unaware of Niall’s condition, and so were unaware of putting him in potential harm’s way.
However, this year’s show has been criticised for facilitating behaviour verging on “emotional abuse” and actively manipulating contestants’ perceptions to gain reactions from scripted scenarios.
After resident philanderer Adam Collard took a shine to new girl Zara McDermott, his existing island relationship with Rosie Williams headed irreversibly toward rocky ground.
The way he handled the situation – smirking as Rosie confronted him while blaming her for the breakdown of their relationship – earnt him admonishing criticism from domestic abuse charity Women’s Aid, who said his behaviour exhibited “clear warning signs”.
Elsewhere, Ofcom received thousands of complaints after the show’s producers decided to give Dani Dyer a misleading video of her island boyfriend Jack Fincham, who she had been with since the start of the series, showing his ex arriving in the new villa after the boys and girls were briefly separated.
Despite this, ITV maintain that they are equipped to deal with any stress contestants expeirence as they have a medical professional on hand if it all gets too much. An ITV source told the Mirror: “The islanders have access to an on-site psychologist at all times.
“They can also talk to any of the production staff if they need to, who will step in if they notice something isn’t right.”
This was supported by the scorned Rosie, who said: “I have access to a psychologist if I need it. Everyone at Love Island has said if I need anything for the rest of my life, they’re just a phone call away. I have their numbers and I will never be afraid to ring them.” But does the gesture alone provide contestants with adequate support?
There’s only so much reality shows can do to offset the reverberant changes they have caused in the lives of former contestants. This was made shockingly clear during this series of Love Island after Sophie Gradon, who appeared in the show in 2016, was found dead in her parents home in Northumberland having apparently committed suicide aged just 32.
Just weeks later, her devastated boyfriend Aaron Armstrong, 25, followed suit.
Her series two costar Malin Andersson said Sophie had struggled to deal with the incessant, callous trolling that comes with appearing on reality TV. She told the Mirror that Sophie had reached her lowest point around a year after her appearance on the show as people’s attention became centred around the new batch of series three islanders and work began drying up.
She said: “We went in there not knowing what it was like to come out after. And you’ve got to keep up this false image on social media trying to be happy, like ‘look at me, I’m advertising this brand and stuff’, but deep down you might be broke and unhappy and you’re going out, drinking alcohol every night.
“It’s a constant chase, it’s a very sad industry to be in.”
She added that although she received a psychological session immediately after being dumped from the island, she was largely left to fend for herself in the world of newfound fame.
“I’m not pinpointing it at Love Island itself but after care is so vital,” she said.
And despite Love Island not deliberately placing unstable – and therefore vulnerable – people in that environment like in Big Brother, the fall from grace of Pete Bennett, the winner of series seven of the seminal reality show who ended up homeless and addicted to ketamine, shows the often intolerable strains of instant celebrity status for ‘regular’ people on reality TV.
Despite the increased awareness of the downsides of appearing on reality TV, highlighted by tragedies like Sophie Gradon and her boyfriend’s death, the quick fame and considerable fortune that can be acquired by participating in reality TV still makes it and unwaveringly attractive prospect.
The seemingly unflappable march towards higher and higher viewer ratings of shows like Love Island means reality TV is not going anywhere anytime soon. When done right, reality TV generates vast viewerships in an industry that values ratings very highly. Perhaps even higher than the wellbeing of its contestants.