By Dr. Mike Brody
This essay was sent to me recently by Dr. Brody's publicity agency and I think it states the problem very well. He raises concerns about the life style of child stars. However, this is just the tip of the iceberg: how about all those "regular" children who have a similar problem but without the glare of the cameras? These are the children we Educational Consultants and programs often see who are struggling teens whose lives were orchestrated by "play dates," "helicopter parents," and continuous supervision who also are not learning how to be in control of their own lives? This lack of experience in self-government or learning to control their own lives as very young children seem too often result in behavioral/emotional problems that require intensive intervention in the teen years. -Lon
Our HD screens are now dominated by cheaply produced "non-scripted" programming, whose basic viewer hook is identification with "average people." The "regular" people on these shows are adults who make the choice to expose themselves to humiliation and rejection on network and cable. But, unfortunately, in their constant quest for freshness and ratings, producers have now brought children into the mix.
Kid Nation, a kind of Lord of the Flies meets Who Wants to be a Millionaire was totally inappropriate and traumatic for the kids ages 6-16.In this show, kids were placed in a western ghost town with a sadistic host in order to provide entertainment for an audience that seemed to enjoy watching separation anxiety. The Baby Barrowers was even more bizarre, as the neglect bar was set even lower, fostering the abuse of infants and toddlers, placing them in the hands of inexperienced and incompetent teenagers. Now we have shows like 18 Kids and Counting, where family activities and conflicts are filmed 24/7, making these shows fodder for the hungry tabloids. A better title for all these shows could be "What are the parents of these kids thinking? Or are they thinking at all?"
To demonstrate a sad truth, consider the quote "Sing out Loud Louise, Sing Out!" from Gypsy. In this musical, we watch as Mama Rose pushes Louise/Gypsy to stand out as an entertainer and become a star. This is much like the children of today, who are under a great deal of pressure, as their parents want their prodigy to be the best they can be for themselves and, of course, for parental enhancement. Free time is out, along with recess. Structured activities and organized sports are in. Kids are now like expensive cars and big houses, principal objects of status and enhancement. Sure, we want to be proud of our children, but not at their psychological expense. Take the example of Jon, a teenager who tries hard to please his father by excelling at soccer. Because of his own failings, Jon's dad keeps moving him up to more competitive teams and intense lessons with "tough" coaches. Jon is not enjoying "his sport" during his supposed "fun time." Like Jon and Gypsy the children on Reality shows are functioning as parental trophies.
What is the emotional and developmental cost to these over-exposed children? Where are the parents? Or do they just play parents on TV? We already have the data about the mess former child-stars have made of their lives, as documented weekly in People and Us. We see them on Entertainment Tonight and E, coming and going from rehab, earning their living writing or staring in plays about their abused and lost childhoods. There is Lindsey, Brittany, and of course Judy, Ricky, and Liz to name a few.
Psychologically the children on these reality shows have no sense of boundaries, as strangers are always present in their rooms and lives. One wonders what this does in terms of relationships, where issues of independence and merging become muddled. There is no privacy of the self.
These children also have authority problems as they mediate between too many adult directors and producers. . Who do they listen to? Authority is also undermined by the power that the kids wield, as they become meal tickets for their families. These children are objectified and not seen for themselves, but for the images they project onto the TV screens. This promotes a sense of falseness of self. What is genuine and real? This is not a healthy environment for children, and it is good that Child Labor Agencies have been investigating some of this programming.
Television not only reflects, but also resonates society. We used to be concerned with inappropriate children's media containing too much commercialism, sex and violence, while now we place children in extremely stressful circumstances to entertain us. This mirrors society, where children are often the victims in divorce, inadequate education and over-worked absent parents.
Where can we find answers to this difficult and unhealthy problem? One place may be Broadway. The award- winning show Billy Elliot, the story of a young boy who has a dream and the talent to dance, is a very arduous and demanding role for the lead child actor. True to the moral lesson of the show, valuing children, the producers use 3 or 4 Billy's. When the 3 stars, who alternate daily performances on stage received their shared Tony for best actor in a musical, they appeared to be delightful and having fun. Their working life was limited and fortunately being handled by responsible adults.
About the author: Michael Brody M.D. is chair of The Media Committee of The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. This article is copyrighted by him and was submitted to Lon Woodbury, Woodbury Reports, Inc., for republication. Dr. Brody is the co-author of Messages: Self Help through Popular Culture. For more information, visit www.messagesfrompopculture.com