By Kirsten Westlake, Co-Founder of LMK

Reality TV, celebrity culture and social media play a major role in popular culture. But what are they teaching us about healthy and unhealthy relationships? According to our study in spring 2024, nearly a quarter (24%) of young adults (aged 16-25) say their perception of having relationships are influenced by reality dating shows such as Love Island and Love is Blind. 

As young people become more exposed to intimate relationships between strangers on these types of shows and social media, they are learning behaviours that fall into the realms of relationship abuse. 

 

Our research confirmed that seven in 10 young adults have at some point suffered abuse in various forms, with nearly half (47%) occurring in the last 12 months and almost a quarter (24%) saying it was directly from a romantic partner. As we are most likely to experience relationship abuse between the ages of 16 and 19, it is clear that young people should be more educated on the signs of a toxic relationship and what is deemed as abuse. 

Through my role at LMK, I work with teenagers to try and decipher why their perceptions of love and relationships are so blurred through a series of workshops led by youth workers. By taking part in these workshops, the role pop culture plays and the effect it has on teenage understanding of healthy relationships has become very clear, and it is no surprise.

 

A dramatic love story is entertaining, but does it normalise relationship abuse?

High emotions and dramatic scenarios are incredibly engaging, and twists and turns in the lives of celebrities and fictional characters capture our attention and keep us watching. Pop culture portrays life in a way that draws audiences in, ushering us into a world where love is idealised, and where unhealthy relationships are often presented as the epitome of ‘true love’. It is designed to be entertaining, eye-catching, and even  shocking. 

Reality TV shows such as Love Island are notorious for  perpetuating harmful stereotypes under the guise of romance . In 2023, Ofcom received over 7,400 complaints from distressed viewers concerned about the levels of gaslighting, manipulation, misogynistic behaviour, and bullying in the show. The contestants, with their good looks and seemingly unshakeable resilience, are who many young people aspire to in today’s society. The popular dating shows often glamourise these behaviours, masking possessiveness as passion and manipulation as romance. Normalising these  toxic behaviours on screen, can mean young people become desensitised to them in real life.

This phenomenon is not limited to reality TV. The same relationship dynamics have played out in soap operas for decades, including Eastenders, Hollyoaks, Emmerdale and Coronation Street, which all portray toxic relationships as true love. One only has to look to Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet to see how historically and deeply woven this concept of a relationship is in the world of entertainment. 

One tool we use during our workshops involves asking students to identify whether emotional or physically abusive scenes in Eastenders are an example of normal relationship. At the start of the session, the answer is often yes, but once they interact with our workshop leaders, two thirds of the young people understand how to identify the signs of healthy and unhealthy relationships themselves and 84% said they knew who to turn to for appropriate help if they or a friend were in an abusive relationship. 

 

Celebrity romance sets unrealistic expectations

TV and social media portray celebrity relationships as full of romance and drama. It’s not surprising that some young people see this as something to aspire to for themselves. LMK’s research found that 23% of young adults said celebrity couples on social media influence their behaviour and attitudes towards relationships. It’s hard not to conclude that this is setting unrealistic expectations of what a healthy relationship should be.

The endless Instagram stories showcasing extravagant gifts, fancy vacations, and over-the-top declarations of love are enough to make anyone feel like their own relationship is boring in comparison. This pressure to replicate the lives of celebrity couples can lead to unrealistic expectations, leading to disappointment, insecurity, and even “love-bombing.”

Celebrity breakups and public feuds often involve manipulation, emotional abuse and even public humiliation. These instances unfortunately find their way into tabloid headlines and social media narratives, which normalises abusive behaviour. Young adults who lack real-world experience might mistake these red flags for signs of “true love,” missing the toxicity. While some celebrities do promote healthy relationships through their actions and words, it is often the drama-fuelled couples who receive the attention. 

 

Harmful influences on social media 

An equally worrying trend is the rise of social media influencers giving explicitly harmful relationship advice, such as self-proclaimed misogynist Andrew Tate, who has millions of followers. The effect this will have on the views of the younger generation and their perceptions of what relationships stand for is a real cause for concern.

LMK’s research found that almost a third (32%) of young adults say they are influenced by relationship ‘experts’ on social media, such as Andrew Tate and Jordan Peterson. Even more worryingly, a recent YouGov survey found that one in four young men agree with Andrew Tate’s misogynistic views – views which have become widespread thanks to the platform that social media provides. 

We’re seeing an explosion in this sort of content, which exposes young adults to toxic behavioural patterns – and creates echo chambers in which misogynistic ideas are made to seem mainstream. 

 

Education is key to prevention

As young people become more exposed to unhealthy relationships through TV and social media, they will find it more difficult to recognise some of the warning  signs of unhealthy relationships, including possessive and intensive behaviour. Our research found that over 60 per cent of young adults can’t tell whether a relationship is abusive having never been taught the signs of a healthy or unhealthy relationship in school.

LMK is an educational charity which aims to create a world where relationship abuse,  sexual assault and domestic violence  no longer exist, where young people can build happy lives through healthy relationships. We believe that this change can only be achieved through education, which is why our programme exists.

More on LMK

Let Me Know, or LMK, is an education charity (charity no. 1191149) in the UK working proactively with young people aged 11 to 24 to prevent relationship abuse. Our inclusive prevention programme helps young people recognise the signs of both unhealthy and healthy relationships through group discussion, real-life scenarios and self-reflection, embedding knowledge that can be carried through to adult life. We also train adults who work with young people to enable them to have the language, skills and confidence to educate young people about relationships. 

Since its inception in 2020, LMK has worked with more than 12,000 young people and delivered over 600 workshops. Two thirds of attendees said LMK had changed their understanding of healthy and unhealthy relationships, and 81% said it will be useful in their relationships now or in the future. 

Find out more about our 10 Signs workshops.