UK's "Love Island" Reality TV Show and a Spate of Suicides
Can psychologists explain an apparent cluster of suicides on UK's 'Love Island'?
Posted Feb 24, 2020
Caroline Flack, who presented the UK series of the reality TV show Love Island, for five years, committed suicide on February 15th.
She was one of the UK's most successful TV personalities.
Yet this is the third UK suicide associated with the massively popular reality TV series Love Island. Sophie Gradon, 32, and Mike Thalassitis, 26, both former contestants, also killed themselves, not long after appearing on the UK version of the show.
But this may not just be a random self-harm cluster. Might there be some common psychologically toxic factor which explains this spate of deaths? Some psychologists argue that exposure to reality TV, might be at least partly responsible for later self-destructive behaviour.
An ominous implication is that millions of viewers may also be influenced towards more self-destructive behaviour as well.
On 20th June 2018, former UK beauty queen and Love Island contestant, Sophie Gradon, abused cocaine and alcohol and then hung herself, the inquest into her death reported. Her boyfriend Aaron Armstrong, 25, who discovered her body, took his own life 20 days later.
Mike Thalassitis, another UK Love Island contestant hung himself on 16th March 2019, apparently after taking anti-depressants and alcohol.
Caroline Flack, who had presented UK Love Island, had recently been suspended from the show; she was due to stand trial in a few weeks, accused of assaulting her partner, Lewis Burton.
Now Caroline Flack's family have just released an unpublished Instagram post she penned days before she took her own life, where she contends that her arrest for assaulting her boyfriend last year, meant: "Within 24 hours my whole world and future was swept from under my feet".
This would appear to place the focus for responsibility for this tragedy on the consequences of the alleged physical assault on her boyfriend. Before Caroline Flack’s death the blame for the suicides of the two previous Love Island contestants had been on the show’s inadequate psychological after-care.
But recent research suggests there may be an over-looked factor, and this could be having a toxic effect on audiences for these massively popular TV series.
This so far hidden factor, which the shows producers may be trying to keep secret, is the selection process by which contestants are chosen to appear.
To generate a watchable TV show using members of the public who are not actors, and who have no dramatic script to act out, the producers require people to provide entertaining dialogue and interactions.
This can only happen if these reality TV shows psychologically select for certain personality characteristics.
These might include competitiveness and poor impulse control.
This combination of personality traits that may be proving psychologically toxic, as suicide and aggression is strongly associated with poor impulse control. If this theory is true, then it ominously signals future suicides becoming an intrinsic and inevitable part of the culture of these programmes.
It is intriguing to note that Caroline Flack first got into trouble because of an alleged act of aggression towards her boyfriend. The latest examination finds that people who watch this kind of reality TV, become more aggressive as well.
The latest study on this effect is entitled, "'Harmless Entertainment'? Effects of Surveillance Reality TV on Physical Aggression," and this research found that viewing reality TV shows like Love Island seemed to make viewers more aggressive.
The study, conducted by researchers Bryan Gibson, Jody Thompson, Beini Hou, and Brad Bushman asked viewers to watch three different kinds of TV shows.
One was what was termed a"‘surveillance reality TV program," that included little or no aggression between contestants (examples were Little People, Big World or The Little Couple), but the results on impact on tendency to become aggressive were compared with watching a comparison surveillance reality TV program. This comparison programme instead included relational and verbal aggression (examples included The Jersey Shore or The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills), and a very violent crime drama was also included as a further comparison (examples included Dexter or CSI).
The study, from researchers based at Central Michigan University and Ohio State University, found that watching reality TV containing aggression between people generated the most aggression of all in viewers, compared to watching a violent crime drama or non-aggressive reality TV shows.
The study, published in the academic journal Psychology of Popular Media Culture concludes that exposure to some kinds of reality TV, of which Love Island might be an example, increases aggression in viewers.
The investigation termed "surveillance reality TV" as placing everyday people into a house setting or fixed geographical location, and then observing what evolves.
Reality TV shows that scored high on what the researchers termed relational aggression included actions intended to harm a relationship, for example, withdrawal of friendship and spreading rumors. Competitive people placed in a high stakes winner-take-all situation are likely to seek ways to aggress against their rivals. An example of relational aggression from the reality TV series Jersey Shore cited by the researchers would be contestant Ronnie gossiping about how Vinnie got pinkeye.
Verbal aggression on these shows includes attempts to use words to intentionally harm another person, including name-calling or insults. An example of verbal aggression from the reality TV series Jersey Shore cited by the researchers would be Mike telling Angelina that she needs to lose five pounds.
Surveillance reality TV show viewers exposed to relational aggression became more aggressive than those watching either a supportive family surveillance reality program or a violent crime drama.
Aggression following watching TV was measured by giving participants in the experiment opportunities to behave aggressively towards potentially irritating fellow participants by blasting them with loud noise. The noise was a mixture of sounds that many people find very unpleasant, such as fingernails scratching a chalkboard, dentist drills, and ambulance sirens.
The authors of the study point out that stars of these kinds of reality TV shows often display a significant lack of self-control. They may drink too much, engage in unprotected sex, and provoke others with hostile comments. As a longer-term life strategy, superior self-control is mentally healthier while lower self-control usually results in a wide variety of negative consequences. These might include drug and alcohol abuse as well as physical aggression.
It is notable how recurrent at least some of these themes are in the three suicides linked with Love Island.
The authors conclude that given the massive popularity of reality TV programs, these results are ominous. Surveillance reality TV programs, from this study, do not appear relatively harmless.
This study suggests we need to stop viewing these shows as guilty pleasures. and instead, they should be seen as potential triggers for subsequent aggression and self-destruction.
Just “Harmless Entertainment”? Effects of Surveillance Reality TV on Physical Aggression. Bryan Gibson, Jody Thompson, Beini Hou and Brad J. Bushman. Psychology of Popular Media Culture, 5(1), 66–73.