When mental health gets ‘too real’

Should reality television producers do more to protect and support contestants from the harm of social media attacks? Quiip's Venessa Paech and Erin Tierney investigate.

It’s easy to get caught up in the drama of a compelling reality show, and even easier to forget there are real people in front of the cameras. Social media chatter around reality television is intense; it’s part of the appeal for viewers, producers and contestants alike. But that chatter can quickly turn hostile, and it’s not always something contestants are prepared for.

David Witko of Bachelorette fame found himself subject to torrents of online abuse after being framed as the seasonal ‘villain’. Casting black hats and white hats is par for the reality course, and audiences understand this. But it seems some are having trouble telling fact from fiction, taking their investment in the program into dark territory.

David Witko on The Bachelorette

The wave of online abuse directed at Witko crossed over into his off-screen life, with the model losing contracts and work due to negative sentiment. He was later featured in Gena Lida Riess’ documentary Creating a Monster, exploring the psychological impact of reality show participation.

Married at First Sight’s Tracey Jewel endured substantial online abuse and threats from ‘fans’ who watch the show, leading her to eventually post on Instagram – “You’ve won trolls. I give up. You’ve ruined my life. You’ve involved my friends, family, clients and sponsors. I have lost everything because of your relentless hate. Hope you’re happy, you’ve claimed another one.”

Jewel has suggested that, while the producers of MAFS provided access to health related services while filming was taking place, once the cameras stopped rolling that support was no longer available. In this sense, reality show contestants may struggle with the same issues contract or gig economy workers sometimes do – demanding work that can impact health and wellbeing, but limited access to full-time resources or care to help manage any lasting effects of that work. It’s not unheard of for reality television contestants to leave the country while their show plays out across screens, in an effort to minimise possible negative exposure.

The #MAFSAustralia hashtag offers a glimpse into what contestants face during and often long after their run is completed: “Jess, Mick was pointing out the obvious – Your Best Friend is a C@%T, Your Sister is a C@%T, Your Brother is a F@%KHEAD, And your Dad’s a DRUNK ……….. AND MICK MISSED OUT – YOUR A MESS !!!!! #mafsaustralia #MAFSAU”

“Looks like Dan enjoys the cottage cheese #MAFSAustralia” (accompanying picture was of a woman wearing a bikini).

The approach from producers mirrors advice given to many dealing with serious social media abuse – ignore the haters and trolls. But it’s not enough. Professional performers may have training to deal with fanbases on the frontline, and they can usually leverage the distance between the characters they play and their offline lives to ask for privacy and respectful treatment. Reality participants are presented as ‘themselves’, and rarely have professional training before hitting screens.

It’s particularly unfair to ask reality show participants to manage reactions based not on their own actions necessarily, but on produced perceptions outside their control. Mental health is not like an on-set injury which will appear (and can be healed) when the cameras are rolling. It can manifest long after an experience and have life-long impacts.

Reality shows aren’t going anywhere, and most viewers don’t want them to. They’re part of our pop culture lives and we love their theatrics. So as long as they’re here, we need to step up our game as creators and audiences alike, demanding and providing responsible protections around social media.

As well as moderating and managing their own social media channels, productions could offer personal social media risk management to their participants – training them or providing support to deal with issues of mental health and wellbeing.

When attacks reach into personal lives, threaten livelihoods or worse, we can’t write it off as part of the drama. Duty of care doesn’t stop when the cameras are off.

Venessa Paech and Erin Tierney are community consultants at Quiip.


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