Teens, TV, & Mental Health

Media provided by Erik Mclean on Unsplash

Everyone loves hanging out in front of the television after a long, busy day at school to watch their favorite shows. From the recent Netflix series Never Have I Ever to classics like Gossip Girl, the number of shows about teenage life is constantly growing. 

However, many of the coming-of-age shows that teens watch are not accurate portrayals of real life. From living in hotels to having hours of free time before school, most television shows about teens seem far-fetched. People love watching Rory from Gilmore Girls navigate the challenges of high school, but these depictions might ultimately be harmful. 

It’s impossible not to feel bad about just how boring life is in comparison to these oversaturated television series. 

Julia Warren, one of the school counselors, said that teenagers watching television that portrays their age group in misconceived ways can negatively impact mental health. Ms. Warren said that “watching who is getting a lot of attention, the kinds of relationships, who has the best outfits” are all “subtle ways to make you idolize or connect with certain characters.” She explained,“when you watch something you’re being transmitted into that world, naturally it’s going to impact you in some way.” 

Many students agree. Lana K. ‘23 said that when “there are adults acting as teenagers, it becomes more of an art or an exaggeration than a real portrayal.” Citing Euphoria, Lana described how she did not see teenagers accurately portrayed at all. “It’s supposed to show extreme situations but teens have started to compare themselves to the characters and relate to them when the point of the show is to show their flaws. Many shows can seem like shows for teenagers because they are about teenagers, but their plot can be very damaging.”

Ms. Warren, who teaches a Mental Health & The Media class, thinks that shows with unrealistic interpretations make teens feel flawed. Realistic portrayals of teens might have the opposite effect. Never Have I Ever, a television series about a high schooler in California, keeps things more realistic. Ms. Warren explained how the show allows teens “to see an Indian girl be the lead and her best friends are not white. They’re all shown in romantic relationships, so I think that could do some positive stuff for your mental health.” 

Other students are more skeptical about television being realistic in any sense. Mia K. ‘24 finds that the age gap is too unrealistic, saying, “Someone my age is usually portrayed by someone in their mid-twenties, which is so strange. The level of maturity and the situations they are in are extreme.” 

After asking Mia how this affects her mental health, she replied that when she was 10 and “15 year olds were playing characters my age, I felt like I was lacking”. 

Realistic portrayals of teenagers in television are vital to teen’s perceptions of themselves and have the potential to make a positive impact on teen mental health. When people see teenagers living oversaturated lives that are filled with constant entertainment and drama, they feel like they are missing out on something in real life. The solution to this seems to be steering clear of shows, like Euphoria or Gossip Girl, that inaccurately depict teen life in potentially harmful ways.. Television shows like Never Have I Ever are more relatable, and may have a  positive effect on teen mental health. 

Awareness of the fictional aspects of teens in television is the key to enjoying our favorite shows that are not necessarily realistic. Even though consuming a lot of unrealistic media is unhealthy, Ms. Warren still wants people to know that it is not “as direct as a lot of critics of teen social media are saying.” 

Teens can still enjoy their favorite television shows, but an awareness of the line between reality and fiction is critical to maintaining perspective.