When childhood unfolds on television

Reality TV shows with young stars like 'Kate Plus 8' are drawing more scrutiny

May 28, 2010|By David Zurawik, The Baltimore Sun

For the past three years, viewers have watched the Gosselin children grow up on "Jon & Kate Plus 8" on the Maryland-based cable channel TLC. Cameras rolled as they went on vacation, as they ripped opened Christmas presents and even as they got ready for bed.

But as the children return to television next week in a new series "Kate Plus 8," the use of kids like the Gosselins in reality TV shows is coming under greater scrutiny from lawmakers and mental health experts.

Psychiatrists and child advocates say the shows can invade a child's privacy and confuse a child's sense of identity. Reflecting that concern, a state lawmaker plans to introduce a bill this week to strengthen child labor laws in Pennsylvania, where "Kate Plus Eight" is filmed.

"Kids in these kinds of shows are not having a childhood, and you don't have to be a scientist to know what's going to happen to some of them as they get older," says Dr. Michael Brody, a Silver Spring psychiatrist and chairman of the Television and Media Committee of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. "It can be a real disaster for them."

"Kate Plus 8" is one of the more widely anticipated series premieres of the summer. But the new production featuring Kate Gosselin as a single mom raising eight children following her divorce from her husband, Jon, is hardly the only one featuring real-life kids in leading roles.

"Toddlers & Tiaras," which tracks families with children in beauty pageants, starts a new season Wednesday on TLC, while "Raising Sextuplets," featuring a couple with a half-dozen 2-year-olds, returns for its sophomore year June 24 on WeTV. Meanwhile, "Wife Swap," which featured the "Balloon Boy" Heene family in its 100th episode, continues on ABC.

"This problem is much bigger than two shows about the Gosselins," says Brody, who used the term "child abuse" to describe two of the most notorious and now-canceled examples of the genre, CBS's "Kid Nation" — which put adolescents in a "Lord of the Flies"-type scenario — and NBC's "The Baby Borrowers," which left infants in the care of untrained teens.

"That's why I'm so glad to see the state of Pennsylvania at least trying to do something to protect children who are in these shows now."

Pennsylvania state Rep. Thomas Murt, the Republican sponsor of the bill, says he got involved in the issue after seeing a documentary on former child stars. In April after receiving complaints from constituents about the filming of "Jon & Kate Plus 8," Murt held hearings on Pennsylvania's child labor laws to gauge how well they protect young performers.

"The hearing revealed some very, very serious concerns about this issue," Murt says. "We discovered there were really no on-set advocates for child entertainers in Pennsylvania. The code as it stands doesn't require that. Another thing the hearing revealed is that one of the reality programs had actually filmed children being toilet trained. … This was alarming, and something we thought should absolutely be prohibited."

Beyond issues of privacy and boundaries, reality TV is seen as being potentially dangerous to young child performers because of the very way it manipulates their own realities.

"Just doing retakes, where they stage a scene and then reshoot it again because something went wrong, really screws up a kid's sense of reality," Brody says.

Murt says members of his committee were told of a staged scene in which the Gosselin children were told it was Christmas so that the producers could get film of "the children coming downstairs in their pajamas, opening presents" and looking excited.

"They had been told that it was Christmas, and they were filmed opening their presents — being excited, of course, as any innocent child would be," he says. "And then they were told later on, well, no, it's not really Christmas."

"You can't behave normally with cameras and sound systems all around you," says Paul Peterson, who played Donna Reed's son in the popular 1960s family comedy "The Donna Reed Show" on ABC. Peterson now runs the California-based foundation A Minor Consideration, founded to provide support for current and former child performers.

"Cameras alter behavior. Just think back to what you felt like when your dad pulled out the Super 8 [home movie camera]. … Or imagine being an adolescent and just trying to fit in and then being confronted with an image of your potty training. You don't control those images."

Peterson says for him, the "core issue is consent." As he sees it, "Children do not have the power to disobey — nor do they understand the full consequences of their participation."

In some cases, the consequences can shape the rest of their lives, as the obituary of child sitcom star Gary Coleman, who died Friday at 42, served to remind readers this weekend. Coleman said he tried to take his life twice with an overdose of sleeping pills.

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