Hilary Levey, a sociologist and post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University, raised some poignant questions in an op-end piece for USA Today. In light of cases like “Balloon Boy,” the sailing Abby Sunderland, the Gosselins and others, she wondered if children used in reality shows should be protected by current labor laws.
I have spent the past decade studying children’s competitive activities — from child beauty pageants to chess to soccer — and children’s work, so I know that concerns about parental exploitation are nothing new. After making child labor, like factory work, illegal early in the 20th century, reformers tackled the problem of child performers. In 1939 California passed the Coogan law (named for famed child actor Jackie Coogan) to protect the earnings of young actors; today 15% of child performers’ earnings must be placed in trust accounts. But only four states have Coogan laws — California and New York, where most child performers work, along with Louisiana and New Mexico. New Mexico passed their laws after controversy in 2007 when the CBS reality show Kid Nation, which featured 40 children and no adults, filmed near Sante Fe.
So what’s different when it comes to kids and reality television? These kids are not classified as performers, denying them the protection of Coogan laws. In fact, the children are not even classified as workers, also denying them the protection of child labor laws. Kid reality stars fall through the cracks of the protections crafted by early 20th-century reformers, who likely never imagined that someone would consent to potty-training their children on camera (Season Three, Episode 4 of Jon & Kate Plus Ei8ht).
Additionally, children’s roles on shows that change their parents’ lifestyles raise the question of whether parents should be the ones to consent to have their children filmed. These parents are famous for simply being parents in unusual families, a role they could not publicly play without the participation of their kids. They have a vested interest in making sure that five-figure per episode paychecks continue to arrive.
Here’s the kicker:
Also of concern are children’s identities. Unlike, say, Miley Cyrus, who played the role of Hannah Montana, reality TV parents essentially consent for their children to “play” themselves. Children’s personalities are dissected by viewers, and any embarrassing activities, like that potty training, are preserved on the Internet — or in syndication. The consequences of having to perform their identity for millions are simply unknown.
So, who “owns” a childhood, the child or the parents? At what age should a child’s consent be required to have their lives edited and broadcast to millions? You can’t have a Facebook account until you are 13, but 6-year-olds can be the “stars” of reality shows?
Good questions. What say you?