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Our unhealthy love of reality TV bullying

By Jen Christensen, CNN
February 28, 2013 -- Updated 1926 GMT (0326 HKT)
  • Reality TV shows twice the number of aggressive acts as other shows
  • Watching aggressive acts on TV can influence viewers' behavior
  • Adult victims of bullying suffer from poor health as a result

Editor's note: Don't miss the premiere of "The Bully Effect" on "AC360" at 10 p.m. ET tonight.

(CNN) -- A red-faced Gordon Ramsay gets nose-to-nose with an older man and shouts, "Wake up!" He calls another chef's food "rotten." He reduces a middle-aged woman to hysterical tears. And all that's just in the opening credits of "Kitchen Nightmares."

For the next hour of the British culinary icon's popular reality TV series, there is little in the way of praise or pats on the back for the chefs he's coaching. Instead, he swears. He throws food. He calls people "stupid" and "disgusting pigs." His entire performance is based on sharp criticism and what some may argue is bullying-type behavior. Viewers eat it up.

Nightmarish behavior is the stuff reality TV shows are made of. Ramsay is certainly not alone. Tami Roman on VH1's "Basketball Wives" calls her friends "bitches" and physically attacks one of them in front of a fancy Miami restaurant. A study of the U.K.'s version of "The Apprentice" found it depicted 85 aggressive acts an hour. "American Idol" showed 57 aggressive acts an hour.

At the same time, a competing message has emerged in the form of high-profile public service efforts. Earnest actors make anti-bullying videos. Children's TV networks create community awareness campaigns. You can even buy "Stop Bullying" hoodies.

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What message gets through? And which do we emulate at work or school?

Studies show that while bullying can manifest as overt bad behavior like physical violence or screaming, more often than not it can be more covert.

Enough is enough: Say no to bullying

Bullying behavior can include people who spread rumors about someone or make a person a regular target of gossip, researchers say. They regularly question someone's competence in front of others. They call people names. They consistently exclude their victims from social events or meetings. They don't give credit where it is due. If they are in a workplace they set impossible deadlines or assign the victim to several pointless tasks to set the victim up to fail or to feel like they don't have any worth.

Some psychologists worry that watching reality TV which can glorify bullying will have negative long-term consequences.

Mean girls: Fighting on reality TV

"Research shows in the short term our own concepts of aggression are activated in the brain when we watch these shows, and we are primed to behave aggressively," said psychologist Sarah Coyne.

The Brigham Young University assistant professor has authored dozens of studies that examine the impact aggressive behavior in the media has on its viewers. Reality TV, she found, depicts nearly twice the number of aggressive acts as dramas or comedies.

What motivates aggressive behavior like bullying is complicated, but Coyne says studies have shown consistently that viewers may start to imitate what they watch.

While she knows of no research examining the long-term impact of reality TV, a several decades-long study shows people who watched aggressive and violent behavior on TV as kids were more likely to be aggressive, hit their spouses and engage in other inappropriate behavior later in life. Other studies of the impact of media violence on youth show that behavior that appears realistic is more likely to be imitated than fictionalized behavior.

"I think certainly people who watch Gordon Ramsay know that behavior is an extreme, but it can creep slowly into the ways the viewers react in real life," she said.

CNN has reached out to Ramsay's production company but a request for comment was not immediately returned.

A popularly cited 2011 Girl Scout Research Institute study of more than 1,000 11- to 17-year-old girls found that those who said they regularly watched reality TV did "accept and expect a higher level of drama, aggression, and bullying in their own lives as well," compared to non-viewers.

About 78% of girls who watched reality TV thought gossip was a normal part of a relationship between girls, while only 54% of girls who didn't watch it did. Another 68% of reality TV viewers thought it was natural for girls to be "catty and competitive" with each other, while only 50% of non-viewers did.

Some 63% of the girls that watched reality TV said, "It's hard for me to trust other girls." Only 50% of those who did not watch reality TV shared the same view.

AC360: Fighting for your bullied child

What may be even more troubling about the popularity of this programming, says Coyne, is that many of the people who exhibit bullying-type behavior on reality TV programs are "very rich and very successful." Viewers may unintentionally model their behavior after them if they start to think it's the way to get ahead.

Playgrounds certainly aren't the only place where bullies lurk -- they may also be in your office.

About 35% of employee in a 2010 study reported being bullied in the workplace; an additional 15% witness it.

That means bullying is four times more common than sexual harassment or racial discrimination, according to the Workplace Bullying Institute. And while there can be legal consequences with sexual or racial harassment or discrimination, there is no legal protection against bullying at work.

"We are taking a pounding daily from bullies, but for the most part it is still an invisible problem," said psychologist Gary Namie, who runs the institute. "And it has huge consequences and costs businesses a fortune."

Why telling bullying victims to 'just fight back' doesn't work

A 2013 study showed that the adult targets of bullying can suffer deeply as a consequence. They experience higher incidents of alcoholism, anxiety, depression, chronic fatigue and insomnia. They struggle with concentration issues and poorer health and have lower self-esteem.

If so many people are victims of bullying, why do they come home and watch it on television?

Studies show watching others suffer in part "satiates a feeling of vengeance," Coyne says. So if a victim can't get revenge at work, at least they can watch someone else suffer. Namie believes watching someone humiliated on TV also makes people feel safer and more comfortable because, in this case, at least it is not happening to them.

"We bemoan the loss of compassion in society, but we revere this severe level of aggression in these programs, and I think it is a real problem," Namie said.

Yet reality TV remains popular and is likely to continue to dominate our airwaves because people keep watching.

"In the end, being nice makes for dull entertainment," Namie said.

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