In the world of reality TV, exploitation is a feature, not a bug, and Love Island is no exception. The competitive element of Love Island is only one aspect of its appeal – the couple that eventually wins is less important than the drama, the heartbreak and the memes. Contestants exposing their vulnerabilities to the audience is essential to formulating a clear emotional arc and, ultimately, a good story line. Participants become almost like fictional characters, compelled to fulfill the archetypes and roles assigned to them by the producers. Consequently, the audience learn to treat them as such – which can prove just as damaging as the show itself.
Of course, Love Island contestants consent to this manipulation when they sign up for the show – but whether they’re aware of the extent to which this will occur to them is another matter, while the editing is completely out of their hands.
For the most part, the effects of reality TV on participants’ mental health during and after production has been explored little. However, recent events have prompted a discussion about the morality of its emotional exploitation. The Jeremy Kyle show, perhaps the epitome of exploitative reality TV, was canned after one suicide – but Love Island, now on its fifth series, is thriving despite the suicides of two former contestants, Sophie Gradon and Mike Thalassitis. The difference between here is that in the case of Jeremy Kyle, the suicide was directly linked to the show’s misleading use of the lie detector test. Both Gradon and Thalassitis, meanwhile, had a history of depression and addiction and died at least a year after their respective stints on the show. This allowed Love Island’s producers to absolve the show of any wrongdoing, claiming there was little they could have done to help.
This is patently false. Love Island may not be wholly responsible for the deaths of Gradon and Thalassitis, but the impact of the show on its’ contestants’ lives is undeniable. The internet age has granted a kind of quasi-longevity to reality TV stars that previously did not exist. Contestants who would have faded into obscurity after their stint on the box, now maintain a social media presence that allows them to become influencers and promoters – at least during their initial fifteen minutes.
It also allows them to read and receive thousands of abusive messages from strangers based solely upon their appearance on TV. Embarrassing moments or confrontations become an easily-accessible part of TV history – contestants who have sex on the show, for example, may find the video being viewed by potential employers, family members, and people too lazy to search for pornography for years to come. The adjustment to this newfound fame is mentally taxing enough for most people; the subsequent loss of this fame, coupled with persistent abuse can be emotionally devastating, especially for those with a history of mental illness. Though producers claim that all contestants undergo psychological evaluation before entering the villa, these tests clearly seem to be insufficiently rigorous.
The abuse of contestants could easily be dismissed as an unfortunate symptom of the modern age and the price of fame – but Love Island doesn’t just expose its contestants to the vitriol of the public, it actively encourages it. A now staple challenge of the show involves islanders reading tweets from members of the public – often cruel and judgemental in nature. In the 2016 series, Gradon was so distressed by one of the tweets targeting her that she ultimately chose to leave the show. Though none of the tweets are directly abusive, this year’s selection included tweets accusing contestants of being gold-diggers, fake, and manipulative. The show’s social media platforms encourage viewers to tweet their thoughts on the contestants, resulting in the adoption of Thalassitis’ nickname ‘Muggy Mike’ as a meme. After Thalassitis’ death, fellow islander Chris Hughes begged people to stop referring to him with the nickname.
In the wake of Gradon and Thalassitis’ deaths, producers have assured the public that there will be more comprehensive aftercare for all the contestants to help them adjust– though the actual details of this alleged new plan remain murky. In the wake of the Jeremy Kyle show’s axing, it’s hard not to see this as at least slightly cynical – suicides, after all, are terrible for PR. But mental health care goes far beyond suicide prevention. Though Love Island is to some extent based upon its contestants’ emotional ups-and-downs, the show at times seems to actively thrive upon their misery – as does its audience. When Zara Holland lost her Miss Great Britain title for having sex on TV in the 2016 series, that was just one small part of the drama – but for her, it was a self-destructive action that changed her life. Holland is still undergoing therapy as a result of her trauma from the show.
Improved aftercare is not enough – producers need to avoid selecting highly vulnerable people as participants and facilitating their self-destructive behaviour. Furthermore, and crucially, the show needs to stop actively encouraging the public to bully cast members for the sake of entertainment. Until that happens, it’s difficult to not see Love Island as deeply exploitative – regardless of the producers’ mental health platitudes.