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NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - College students who watch reality television beauty shows are at least twice as likely as non-viewers to use tanning lamps or tan outdoors for hours at a time, a new study suggests.
That finding doesn't prove watching shows such as America's Next Top Model and Toddlers & Tiaras drives people to the tanning booths themselves, researchers said.
But it does suggest the shows aren't promoting the healthiest views on tanning, which has been linked to a higher risk of skin cancer - especially among younger people.
"TV shows might not realize the message they're (promoting) by having all of these attractive, tanned people," said study co-author Joshua Fogel, a health policy researcher at Brooklyn College, part of the City University of New York system.
For both skin specialists and primary care doctors, he added, "it's worth asking their younger patients if they do use tanning lamps and outdoor tanning for a while, especially those that watch reality TV shows."
The new findings are based on surveys of 576 college students who were in their early 20s, on average. About 61 percent of them watched reality TV beauty shows.
Watching reality TV was tied to both indoor and outdoor tanning. Among people who watched the beauty shows, 13 percent had used tanning lamps in the last year and 43 percent had tanned outdoors for more than two hours at a time. In comparison, less than four percent of non-watchers used tanning lamps and 29 percent tanned outdoors.
Not surprisingly, women were ten times more likely to use tanning lamps than men, according to findings published in the Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology.
The researchers didn't ask survey participants exactly what shows they watched, so they couldn't link specific programs to tanning.
"It's very clear that people who are watching (these shows) view this as something positive to do," Fogel told Reuters Health.
It's possible the programs may directly encourage viewers to tan because they imply tanned people are cooler and more attractive, he said.
"The alternative possibility is the people who are tanned in the first place like watching these shows," Fogel added, because the characters look more like them.
Another study out this week in The Journal of Pediatrics found that reality TV viewing was tied to better self esteem among adolescent girls. But girls who watched the shows also focused more on their appearance and were more willing to compromise their values for fame.
A representative from TLC - Discovery Communications, which airs Toddlers & Tiaras, said the network had no comment on Fogel's findings.
Dermatologist Dr. Elizabeth Tanzi, who wasn't involved in the new study, said it was consistent with what doctors in the field know about the media's influence.
"The images on TV of celebrities, they really do send powerful messages to the masses. And if they are going to the tanning salons and giving the impression that to be beautiful you have to be tan, and that's the ideal, that message is a very powerful one that's going to our young people," Tanzi, from Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore and the Washington Institute of Dermatologic Laser Surgery, told Reuters Health.
Fogel also suggested a health promotion campaign where celebrities come on TV and talk about the dangers of tanning to counteract some of the negative messages coming from reality shows.
SOURCES: bit.ly/XMT6Q5 Journal of the American Academy of Dermatology, online December 26, 2012 and The Journal of Pediatrics, online January 7, 2013.