I DIDN’T anticipate getting fully sucked into the Love Island vortex this year. I thought I’d pick away at an episode here and there, tapas-style, thereby broadening my small-talk repertoire beyond the cost of petrol without spending almost every evening of my summer bikini-deep in reality TV. Having never seen it before, I was unaware that trying to limit yourself to a few episodes of Love Island is akin to eating just one little patata from a heaving bowl of bravas. Impossible, in other words.

As for those preconceived notions of engaging in light-hearted banter with my hairdresser about the show? Forget it. Much of this series – for me and countless others – provoked serious conversations about misogyny and relationships. Once I’d exhausted the small-talk fodder (“Why do they only eat pancakes?” “Was Luca’s Einstein tattoo the result of a misunderstanding while trying to order a beer in Germany?”) I found myself having several Big Talks about what was going on in each episode. Quite a feat, really, given that “At the end of the day, it is what it is, to be fair” made up roughly one-third of the contestants’ mostly anodyne discussions.

For the uninitiated, and I suspect there are a few of you who have managed to avoid it since it first aired in 2015, the show’s premise is this: a bunch of single men and women, most of whom are in their twenties, are thrown together in a Majorcan villa where they have to find a love match. Contestants are ‘coupled up’ from the get-go (normally they’d pick someone based on physical attraction, but this year the public made the call on who got together) and as the show progresses they have opportunities to ‘recouple’ based on who they want to get to know better. Along the way, contestants are eliminated by public vote and new Islanders – known as ‘bombshells’ – periodically enter to shake things up. The winning couple, as voted for by viewers, is awarded £50,000.

In theory, it’s a bit of harmless fluff; the perfect show to submerge your brain in when you need to switch off for the evening. But the reality this year was far from relaxing. Several male contestants exhibited possessive, controlling behaviour. One of them, Jacques O’Neill, spoke aggressively to the woman he was partnered with, Paige Thorne, calling her “pathetic”, telling her to “f*** off” and getting visibly riled when she spoke to other men.

Luca Bish, who was partnered with 19-year-old Gemma Owen, flew into a jealous rage on seeing footage of contestant Billy Brown gently flirting with Owen, accusing her of “entertaining” it when she didn’t remotely reciprocate. His behaviour was concerning enough to prompt Women’s Aid to speak to ITV bosses about it, but whatever was said didn’t seem to make much of a difference – his hot-headed jealousy reappeared the following week and made for uncomfortable viewing.

Love Island has been criticised for allowing these displays of toxic masculinity to go unchecked, especially considering it’s not the first time a contestant has been called out for being emotionally abusive.

In response, Love Island’s executive producer Mike Spencer said in an interview with Deadline: “We showcase real relationships and real people, which is why the show is relatable. There are ups and downs in every relationship. We care for our Islanders and make sure they are protected. I wouldn’t want to bandy about a term like toxic masculinity which is so serious when globally there are people going through very extreme things in their relationships.”

Everything about this statement stinks. Yes, there are ups and downs in every relationship – but not every relationship is used as entertainment and watched by millions of viewers across the country, the majority of whom are young people whose own boundaries and expectations could easily be influenced by what they see on screen. And using a variation of the ‘some people have it much worse’ line to minimise what has happened in the show is not just dismissive – it’s dangerous. Attitudes like this make victims of emotional abuse feel as though they should put up and shut up because at least they’re not experiencing the worst-case scenario, which is what? Being killed?

People are often snobby about reality TV, but like it or not, it very often has a wide reach and plays an important role in our cultural landscape. It is accessible to most people and part of a complex patchwork that informs our perceptions of intimate relationships. I was heartened when a friend told me how her teenage daughter had been questioning the actions of some of Love Island’s male contestants, identifying their behaviour as problematic and noticing how it had dented the confidence of women in the villa. My friend agreed, and they had a discussion about it.

But what happens when you don’t have that kind of sounding board? What if you’ve been raised in a household where angry outbursts and controlling behaviour are regular occurrences – if you see it normalised on TV too, are you then at a greater risk of ending up in a harmful relationship like that yourself?

It’s not the sole responsibility of a show like Love Island to provide relationship education to the UK – of course it isn’t – but I firmly believe the producers have a duty of care to contestants and viewers. They obviously accept this on some level, too; this year, contestants received inclusivity training on disability, sexuality, race and ethnicity. If the series is to continue, perhaps that training ought to extend to include education around controlling behaviour, not only for contestants but for the production team behind the show.

Now that the series finale has aired, I am relieved to be released from its grip. I don’t regret dipping my toe in its turquoise waters, but as it stands, I’m fairly certain I won’t be returning to Love Island. I have Gogglebox and First Dates for when my brain requires bathing in candyfloss, and on the small-talk front, I’m going to have a bash at chatting about women’s football and see how that goes. Wish me luck.