How Reality TV Turns Kids into Hyper-Consumers

The first time I went to look up a show on the website for Common Sense Media, I remember giggling to myself at the categories the website used to rate entertainment for kids. I was happy to see that the folks at Common Sense would tell me about the sexual content of the shows, not to mention graphic violence or bad language. It certainly saves me from screening a lot of bad tween dramas and even serves as a helpful reminder about movies I watched when I was young. (Did you forget the important plot twist in Dirty Dancing that you don’t want to explain to your fifth grader?)

But I never thought I was going to pay much attention to how much “consumerism” a show contained. Was I concerned that a particular movie included product placements? Not really. My kids were going to see Coca Cola and iPhones in real life much more often than they were ever going to see them on television. Frankly, I thought consumerism was something that leftists who didn’t like the free market worried about.

But that was before my daughter started watching HGTV. I can’t tell you exactly how my ten-year-old first learned about the show House Hunters. She’s not really allowed to channel surf. It probably had something to do with Netflix. There are only so many shows that Netflix offers in its “kids” setting, but these shows also include Love it or List It and Property Brothers.

What could be the harm, I thought, in having her watch people buy houses or renovate them? With shows like Flea Market Flip, she could learn something about fixing up old things and selling them for a profit. It seemed downright entrepreneurial.

But when she watched a couple of episodes of Say Yes to the Dress recently, I began to rethink this whole enterprise. Just because there was no sex or violence in these shows did not make them good for children or even appropriate for them. One reason? These quasi-reality shows are really just glorified shopping channels.

They make the audience look at every object—every kitchen, every light fixture, every couch, every dress—as something to be picked apart and criticized. They make the quest for the perfect look, the perfect style, the perfect item, into something much more important than it is. They turn every conversation into a conversation about money. Each episode is simply an exercise in comparing things and buying the best one.

The shows—such as Fixer Upper, for example—try to impose a plot. Maybe there is tension between the husband and wife over what kinds of things they want in a house. Or maybe the family has struggled and the new house is their first step toward creating a new life. Maybe an ailing grandmother is accompanying the bride to her dress appointment and wants nothing more than to make it to the big day.

But these are all merely scaffolding for the main event, which is about stuff. Which stuff to buy, how much to spend, etc. This is fine for adults. Truthfully, much of our lives involves making these decisions, and we are able to keep things in perspective. Well, mostly.

But for kids, these shows promote a covetous attitude and envy of others at far too young an age. Even if all of your worldly needs are met, you see things on these shows that make you think there is something more, something better. One can be a fan of the free market while also believing that the quest for things should not be, well, all-consuming.

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