Love Island is brain-dead smut and reality TV is the modern-day equivalent of Victorian freak shows – Alastair Stewart

When it first aired, an old colleague used to say that Love Island was a “fascinating sociological experiment – genetics or the environment, it’s an addictive debate”.

It's time to stop watching reality television shows like Love Island, says Alastair Stewart (Picture: ITV)

I'm pretty sure she was pulling my leg. It's brain-dead smut which, in fairness, doesn't try to be pretentious (as early Big Brother did). Like all gawking reality TV, it’s rooted in the distress of others. It’s human bullfighting with the same leering, jeering and faux showmanship.

And emotional goring is silently cheered. Dramatic, dysfunctional, and deceitful behaviour is relished. It's a sad indictment that Women's Aid has condemned contestants for “gaslighting”, “emotional abuse”, and “controlling behaviour”. Is this what we want to call our entertainment?

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Survey evidence commissioned by the Mental Health Foundation revealed that reality TV makes almost one quarter (24 per cent) of 18 to 24 year-olds’ worry about their body image.

Thirty-eight people worldwide have taken their own lives connected to reality TV programmes. Love Island presenter Caroline Flack was only 40. Neha Sawant, an 11 year-old reality star, killed herself after an Indian dance competition. Cyberbullying and online harassment are endemic. Social media and the tabloid press have made an industry of needling people's private lives.

It took the suicide of a contestant on the Jeremy Kyle Show to provoke a government inquiry on the potential link between reality TV shows and suicide. Ofcom has extended the scope of the Broadcasting Code to include tighter safeguards and informed consent about the inherent dangers “insofar as these can be reasonably anticipated at the time”.

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Should the government do more, or should people switch off? Better yet, should contestants not volunteer, or should they be prevented from applying in the first place? It's the same old argument about personal and societal responsibility. Whether it be prostitution, abortion, drinking, smoking, drugs or 'my right' to drink and drive – the same fundamental question remains unchanged.

Isaiah Berlin's 1958 essay, Two Concepts of Liberty, articulated the challenge between positive and negative liberty. Both are valid propositions. Positive liberty is the right to exercise my judgement and assess my own risk. Negative liberty is freedom from interference, coercion and regulation by a social body.

Do we accept people make their own decisions, despite the consequences, or restrict these 'opportunities' because there is inherent danger? People have the right to make money and a reputation from these shows, but others have a right not to be harassed and bullied. When does the loss of one life become an intolerable sorrow for us all?

There's an odd split in the public. Some increasingly believe the government has a role to play in enforcing health and safety on everything including fatty foods and sugar intake.

Others take the view that we need to change attitudes and behaviours, not bring in more laws. And there are some who are more brutal, with a ‘reap what you sow’ mentality – “shame about migrant crossings, but they got in the boat” or “shocking about drug deaths, but they swallowed the pill”.

By extension, there's an ugly undercurrent of feeling that contestants in these programmes are fair game. This comes from the same people who casually refer to the Kardashians as “sluts” and think that any abuse that hits them is their fault by taking part in reality television.

Yet, we're all complicit in reality TV. All of us are aware of its existence, and most of us know that there has been a loss of life associated with the genre. We banned smoking in pubs and restaurants because passive smoking indirectly kills – so does a passive tolerance for situations and activities which we know destroy confidence, self-esteem and mental health. In the worst instances, it leads to death.

China has banned children from reality TV, stating that overnight fame is “too dangerous”. After 20 years of reality TV, there's now enough evidence to say this type of entertainment unequivocally contributes to a culture of cyberbullying and harassment.

The right to make money is not a justification in a plethora of other activities. We don't tolerate the exploitation of others or false advertisements. Tightening social media laws, prosecuting online trolls or expecting more from the tabloids just circles the problem.

Public Health Scotland prefers the term “unintentional injuries” to “accidents” as “the latter implies that events are inevitable and unavoidable whereas a high proportion of these incidents are now regarded as being preventable”. That mentality would radically alter our tolerance of injuries and death from sports and entertainment that are entirely predictable, just as we can tell an out of control car will crash.

The implications will be complicated. Deaths and injuries resulting from professional sports, notably high impact ones, are the same in principle: this is entertainment with a question mark over the rights of competitors versus the predictability that harm will come to them.

People will always want to make a cheap buck and chase a reputation. But there are and should continue to be clear limits when the right to do impacts the collective. Victorian freak shows and human zoos were once considered harmless entertainment. We now know they were the worst indulgence based on a craving to observe the strange and the macabre. No one would excuse it now just because John Merrick was paid.

Christians were fed to lions as the crowd cheered, and here we are again. These modern-day ‘penny gaffs’ take advantage of people whose only crime is not being self-aware enough to know that they're being exploited as entertainment. Now seems as good a time as any to reach across and turn the TV off. Knowing that this is unlikely, the time might be here to have the TV switched off for those of us still watching

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