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Reality TV and children's health: Shaquille and Shaunie O'Neal headed to court

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According to TMZ, Shaunie O'Neal (ex-wife of retired NBA star and current NBA analyst Shaquille O'Neal) is taking Shaq to court. Shaunie is attempting to compel Shaq to allow their children to be filmed as part of her pending reality TV show, The Shaunie Project. TMZ reports that Shaq believes that "no good can come of cameras in the home," and that he is concerned that the plotlines will evolve to become damaging to his four children, despite Shaunie's assertions that the show is intended to be "wholesome."

Can reality TV be damaging for participants' mental health? Psychologist Cynthia McVey warned about this very issue nearly a decade ago, as the UK version of the reality TV show Big Brother featured a particularly dark plotline. "As a psychologist who has been involved in reality TV shows for several years," McVey wrote in the magazine New Scientist, "it was clear to me that this episode and others like it raise serious ethical questions about the nature of participation.

When people consent to take part in reality TV programs, do they really know what they are getting into? Is their consent based on a realistic knowledge and understanding of the possible consequences for them and their families? I suspect not.

Whatever the outcome of the O'Neals' day in court, the Allentown Family Health Examiner cautions all viewers of reality TV -- and heavy television viewers in general -- to maintain a skeptical eye when it comes to television programming. Although the dialogue itself may not be scripted in so-called "reality" television programs, the plotlines are often known in advance -- as Shaunie O'Neal inadvertently revealed when she discussed a potential episode focusing her overcoming an aversion to exercise in order to run in a 5K race -- and all television developed for entertainment is, in fact, different from reality.

Researchers have developed theories to explain the phenomenon of "cultivation": when "heavy television viewers adopt a worldview congruent with how the world is portrayed in fictional television programs." Although scientists previously believed that cultivation took place when more than a week had elapsed since viewing a program, research published in the journal Perceptual and Motor Skills indicates that "fiction-to-new confusions can occur almost immediately after watching." Substantial consumption of "reality" and other overly dramatic television programming can lead to an inaccurate view of reality.

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