Why stop at reality TV?

Today, both Dan and Michelle Cottle make similar points about the irresponsibility of the Gosselins in allowing their children to be filmed for reality TV. I agree; it is exploitative. The children cannot give informed consent to have their lives made public.

I'm not sure, however, that we shouldn't continue questioning the morality of using child labor when it comes to scripted fare. It is true that in the case of reality TV, the child's life is more directly exposed. That probably makes the situation worse. But it also seems exploitative to allow one's child to model or act when the child cannot give informed consent. Why is there this exception to child labor laws? We recognize children cannot enter into work contracts, have their parents enter them into such contracts, in most other arenas of work.

There are many things in a child's life to which a child cannot give informed consent: education, diet, etc. In order that children grow into healthy adults, we sometimes act without their consent. I know my child would receive no medical attention whatsoever if I could only get him to submit to an exam with his consent. But allowing a child to act or model seems to have (I have no data on this, just a general impression), generally speaking, a neutral or even negative impact on their lives. With some notable exceptions, many child actors, especially perhaps successful, famous ones, seem to go down in flames. But there are certain things that we do not allow children to do even if the benefits outweigh the harms ( we don't allow children to get married, even if we think it would in a specific instance be a benefit to the child). We are agreed that children generally cannot work in, say, a stockroom before a certain age even if it would greatly benefit them.

Now I can't imagine an artworld without child actors. And I'm sure there are many many healthy happy children who act and model who suffer no ill effects, and perhaps even credit their early acting careers with building character or camaraderie or what have you. I am sure, before child labor laws were established, that not every single child who labored was hurt by the laboring. That doesn't mean that the parents had the right to exploit them in this way. Rights should be respected without regard to harms and benefits. I simply wonder why we think parents have the right to allow their children to work in these circumstances, where we don't permit it in others.


  1. On the gripping hand, it seems that precisely those children who make good actors are most likely to be able to give informed consent. They must be intelligent, aware, and somewhat reflective of the behavior of others to make a good actor.

    Of course, I would agree with you on the +8 children. The simple solution is to stop watching the show. No one in Hollywood will pay for low ratings.

  2. Some thoughts:

    1) I thoroughly enjoyed touring through your "seem to go down in flames" links. Well compiled, my friend. Well compiled.

    2) I don't necessarily think that having one's kids on reality TV should be illegal. I think that having any kind of scruples would compel one not to, but there are plenty of lousy decisions people make with regard to their children that we tolerate.

    3) The warping effects on the flamed-out child actors seems, to me at least, to be related to a combination of too much fame and money too soon, coupled with having the greatest accomplishments of one's life occur too early. (Perhaps having the kind of parent that would push one to be a child star is a contributing risk factor.) But reality TV is all about exposing the most damaging and prurient aspects of the persons involved, leaving them psychologically naked for the enjoyment of the audience. It seems an order of magnitude worse.

  3. Not sure, Dan, but I think you may have your scale of harm tipped the wrong way. Think of how many child actors there are (extras on TV, in commercials, in print ads, etc). Some of these are parental pushing, but some are kids who get involved in the local amateur theater group (on their own initiative) and it goes from there.

    Now think of how many are actual flameouts... only a few, and then only the ones that actually have a *career*.

    I think most "child acting" is probably in the bin of the "it's okay as long as it doesn't become a habit" bin. We all know the stories of the stage parents, but I think they are more the exception than the rule (this is very hand-wavy, I'll admit, I don't have hard evidence to back that up).

  4. Modelling? Akin to acting? Quick, name on child model (not talking about teen porn like Brooke Shields). Overwhelmingly most child models are complete unknowns. They get an opportunity to set aside money for college and have a boost for their self esteem, feeling more confident and attractive than they otherwise most likely would have. It is only when it goes mega like for some child actors that things get crazy. It even happens for adults, take a look at poor Susan Boyle. It is society itself that goes nuts.
    No, properly done child acting and modelling is as acceptable and beneficial as any other child avocation. Would you stop a piano prodigy from playing? A chess prodigy? No, you just set limits, which is what any good parent can do.


  5. I don't think child acting is as harmful as Elizabeth does, though I certainly see her point. Perhaps I wasn't clear, but I definitely think that children in reality television are more harmed than those who are actors outright.

  6. Note: I didn't say it was harmful. I said that even if laboring in other fields is not harmful, we consider such labor immoral. Why is this field different? (full disclosure: I was a child model. I have no memory of it and no money from it and my life seems to have gone remarkably the same as it would have otherwise).