As fans flock to Love Island, a U.K. inquiry explores the toll reality TV takes on contestants
'People forget these are real human beings with real feelings,' psychologist says
Dr. Alex George, a former star on the British reality dating show Love Island, says his Instagram following exploded from about 200 followers to more than a million overnight.
This newfound social media fame, he told Day 6, led him to be the target of online harassment for things like his appearance and career.
"The first time I [posted an Instagram] story, I thought, 'Oh my gosh, this is going out to huge numbers of people,' which can cause a lot of anxiety," the London-based emergency room doctor explained.
George has since found positive ways to cope with the spotlight, but says the transition from the the show back to real life can be challenging for other contestants.
The recent deaths of former contestants on two British reality television shows has elevated public and government concern about the mental health impact of the genre. But some warn that it's difficult to link the reason for these deaths to the programs.
Love Island, now in its fifth season, sequesters "glamorous singles" at a villa in Mallorca, Spain, where they must couple up, compete in challenges and survive eviction to win $84,000. ITV, the network that airs Love Island, bills the show on its website as sexy, fun, summer viewing.
In the last year, however, two former stars have died by suicide.
More recently, a guest on the British broadcaster's long-running daytime talk show The Jeremy Kyle Show died by suicide, according to media reports.
All these deaths have renewed scrutiny in Britain about the stress put on people appearing on reality TV and online shows, along with program makers' duty to protect them.
The subsequent fallout saw the launch of a parliamentary inquiry into the production of reality television, and prompted calls from the U.K.'s Mental Health Minister Jackie Doyle-Price to ensure producers offer adequate mental health supports to participants.
Season 5 of Love Island debuted in early June and the format has been exported worldwide, from Australia to Sweden. An American version of the dating show is set to premier on CBS starting July 9.
"There can be moments of real high, but there's real lows, at times, as well," George said in support of the program. "There's never a moment that's dull in that place."
Preparing for a 'life-changing event'
Though some have blamed Love Island — and called for its cancellation — it's difficult to link the suicides of past contestants directly to the show. Supporters argue that producers of the British version implement a careful screening process.
When it comes to George's experience being cast on Love Island, he says producers heavily assessed his mental health before the show was filmed to ensure he was a good candidate. They also provided counsellors during filming.
This support also carried on well past the finale, he added.
"After the show, I feel the after-care for me was good."
Psychologist Honey Langcaster-James has worked with reality TV producers and contestants for 15 years and agrees that linking the deaths to the show is troublesome.
"We have to be extremely careful there because the research just doesn't back that up at the moment," she told Day 6's Brent Bambury.
Her company, On Set Welfare, assesses not only contestants' fitness for the program but how they could be impacted by it.
What we're all interested in [is] the private lives of other people and particularly their romantic lives.- Honey Langcaster-James, reality TV psychologist and consultant
When she first started in reality TV, social media hadn't yet become mainstream. She recognizes that more needs to be done to prepare the show's stars for attention it delivers, but says there's only so much that can be done.
"It's like preparing anyone for a really life-changing event," she said. "You can send people to parenting classes, but it doesn't really prepare you for being a parent until it happens to you."
ITV has said it will provide social media and financial management training to contestants.
Room for improvement
In an era of online streaming and binge-worthy television, shows like Love Island have been a lucrative business for traditional broadcasters.
The Season 4 premiere took the crown for most watched show ever in the U.K., surpassing the 2012 London Olympics.
According to Langcaster-James, the reason is simple: "It's really tapped into our basic human psychology ... and what we're all interested in [is] the private lives of other people and particularly their romantic lives."
"This is a completely natural psychological phenomena that we're interested in the relationships of others," she continued.
Still, Langcaster-James contends that things can be improved. The TV industry, she argues, works on a season-by-season basis, leading to inconsistent approaches when it comes to psychological supports.
When it comes to social media, more research on its impacts — and regulation of what's allowed — is needed to keep people safe.
"People forget these are real human beings with real feelings," she said.
"I don't believe that just because you work in the media, you should therefore be fair prey to what is essentially an online assault or a form of abuse."
Where to get help:
In Quebec: Association québécoise de prévention du suicide: 1-866-APPELLE (1-866-277-3553)
Kids Help Phone: 1-800-668-6868 (Phone), Live Chat counselling at www.kidshelpphone.ca
Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention: Find a 24-hour crisis centre
If you're worried someone you know may be at risk of suicide, you should talk to them about it, says the Canadian Association for Suicide Prevention.
Here are some warning signs:
- Suicidal thoughts.
- Substance abuse.
- Feeling trapped.
- Hopelessness and helplessness.
- Mood changes.
To hear the full interview with Honey Langcaster-James, download our podcast or click 'Listen' above.