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Helping your daughter make sense of reality TV

Reality TV isn't known for its positive female role models. Whether it's Snooki and J-Woww, members of the "Bad Girls Club," or the "Real Housewives," women in this genre are often portrayed as backstabbing rivals who overreact to every perceived slight. 

While most adults can see these conflicts for what they are -- outrageous ploys to attract more viewers -- our kids have a harder time telling fact from fiction. 

In an age where reality shows and stars are not just on our TVs but also splashed across magazines and social media, how are these pervasive messages impacting our daughters and their relationships? And how can we counteract them before they undermine the support that real female friendships provide?

Throughout their teenage years, girls are exploring their identities and trying on different personas. They are also increasingly interested in their peers and what their peers think of them.

This stage of life may make some reality shows appealing, as they often feature cast members with different (and exaggerated) personalities and focus on the relationships (and drama) between them. In fact, a 2011 Girl Scouts study found that many girls receive inspiration and comfort from reality TV, with 68% agreeing that reality shows "make me think I can achieve anything in life" and 48% agreeing that they "help me realize there are people out there like me."

At the same time, some reality TV can normalize and even glorify casual sex, drinking to excess, and settling disagreements with physical violence. Teens can start thinking that this is how they’re SUPPOSED to act, especially since these are supposedly "real" people in "real" situations. 

The impact is hard to ignore:  That same Girl Scouts study concluded that regular reality TV viewers are considerably more likely than non-viewers to agree that it's in girls' nature to be catty and competitive with one another -- and, as reported on FoxNews.com earlier this month,  that being mean earns you more respect than being nice. Moreover, there's a long legacy of studies establishing a link between exposure to TV violence and tendency toward aggression in real life.

These are not the messages we want our daughters to internalize. As parents, we can  counteract iffy messages by pointing out what's real and not real, and remind kids and teens what friends can achieve together, rather than by working against each other. Also, point out when shows go for cheap entertainment with tired stereotypes, and discuss the real-world consequences of that behavior. Drinking all day like the "Jersey Shore" crew, or ending a party in fisticuffs can – and has – led to arrests, jail time, and legal trouble for some reality TV show participants.

Families can choose entertainment that sends a better message to our kids and reinforces the lessons or messages we want our daughter to take with her. While some reality TV pumps up the drama to attract viewers, there are lots of alternative shows that don't wallow in the negative. Shows like "The Amazing Race," "The Glee Project," and "Born to Dance" are shows that tackle complex issues -- like diversity, acceptance, and healthy competition -- in a multi-faceted and realistic way. When reality programs are done well, they can be inspirational, relatable, and affecting.

And finally, remember, the more they watch, the more impact everything has -- so set limits, and stick with them.

The people behind these outrageous reality shows are most concerned about their bottom lines. That's the whole reason why they choose to focus on conflict and drama – because people are watching. 

But we have immense power as consumers, and can choose to watch shows that reinforce the lessons and values we want our teens to follow. 

At Common Sense Media, we strongly believe in the power of media to influence young people in positive ways, and work to empower parents with information about alternatives -- including reality shows -- that celebrate cooperation, hard work, and healthy female relationships. Through our individual choices, we can send Snooki packing and change the media landscape for our daughters and our families.