The Ethics of Child TV Stardom

So this is really more of a question/subject for debate than a thought-out position:

Is it ethical to involve your young child in an endeavor which will bring them great stardom?  I’m talking about acting, reality-show casting, etc.

This arises after having just watched about 15 minutes of “Guy vs. Rachel’s Kid’s Cookoff” or something like that, and turning it off in some disgust and real sadness I was experiencing at watching the sort of cloying made-for-TV adultishness that seems to be the norm in how these kids are expected to act.

Some obvious arguments against child stardom:

  1. It tends to mess kids up later on.  For a great fictional illustration of this phenomenon, see P.T. Anderson’s Magnolia, and William H. Macy’s portrayal of “Quiz Kid Donnie Smith” later in life.  For nonfictional illustrations, think about just about any child star.  Some particularly well-documented non-fictional cases:  Michael Jackson, Drew Barrymore.
  2. Kids don’t exercise anything like informed consent in this process.  Especially not young kids.  A 3-year-old who has some sort of adorable made-for-TV quality will have decisions made by their parents.  Even when the kid is asked and they say “yeah, I love this” they’re not really in a position to say this.  Maybe there are some gray areas when a kid is in their middle teenage years, but single-digits?  Seems clearly aren’t really in a mental condition to consent to this stuff.
  3. It’s exploitative.  Kids aren’t really in a position for many years to reap the profits they bring their parents (or their production companies, networks, etc).  In the mean time someone else is making a lot of money on them, money which they will never see unless their parents happen to be really good, farsighted people.

Obviously you can tel where my intuitions lie – but maybe I’m missing something?

It’s additionally frustrating that “but they’re so cute” is offered up as a reply to 1-3 above, and that that seems to carry the day so often in whatever arguments we do have about this.  I’m not sure how old Honey Boo-Boo was when she first was on TV – 3?  The fact that so many people were entertained by this obviously explains why it DOES happen, but seems really far from why it SHOULD.

I’m honestly a little surprised there are not more legal strictures preventing this stuff from happening.  There are child labor laws, bans on child pornography, and a few other things, but why should adults be allowed to enroll their children in lives that, in the short- and medium-term, seem like bad deals for them, just to entertain the rest of us?

And why is this considered an acceptable subject to make fun of on VH1-style documentaries?  Think about what we’re really laughing at.

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3 Responses to The Ethics of Child TV Stardom

  1. juan says:

    I don’t think any of the 3 arguments are conclusive or sufficient:
    1. We’d need some statistics that show that this does tend to mess them up later on. It’s not certain it does. And in cases where they mess up, it’s not clear that the major factor is because they started young; maybe they would have messed up anyway. There’s a lot of stars that messed up, but did not start as children. We’d need at least a list of all those who started as children, and if the majority screwed up later on (in a greater percentage than those who did not start early, who we can use as a control group), then this will be plausible.
    As for Michael and Drew, they did all right, let’s not pity them. If somebody asked them, as adults, if they’d do it all over again, I’m not sure they’d say ‘No.’
    2.Children also can’t give informed consent about going to school.
    3.This might be a reason, if it’s true. But actual present-day harm to the children is hard to prove.

    I am also disturbed by this stuff, but I’m not sure why.I feel like there’s exploitation going on, but not monetary. It’s more like the parents and the industry are taking advantage of these children, and using them as means to other people’s pleasure (the audience).
    But since there’s no apparent harm, and no rights violations, I don’t know how to explain this reaction. Maybe children have a potential to become adults, and that’s what warrants not using them for our amusement, like we use our pets.

    Or maybe, apart from any harm or rights issues, that’s just not what the virtuous parent would do. Perhaps there are values in childhood as such, and children should act in accordance with the values of childhood, and be encouraged to cultivate them (play is one such major value of childhood, which adults tend to lose). People who try to make them act as adults are just perverting them. This is the opposite case to one where we are disgusted by an 80-year-old wasting money on women, drinking and gambling, whereas we don’t particularly mind it in a teenager, or at least we excuse it. It’s just not becoming for old age. The more I think of it, the more I’m drawn to this line of argument.

  2. Josh says:

    re 1 – I was more making an argument that, were its data true, it would provide sufficient warrant. You’re absolutely right data is required. I wasn’t basing my argument on Michael Jackson or Drew Barrymore, just citing them as well-known examples. Do we agree that if long-term harm could be demonstrated, this would be an ethical strike against the pursuit of childhood stardom?

    re 2 – I don’t think it’s enough to reject the argument merely to propose that there’s another activity for which informed consent can’t be given. It’s a modus-ponens/modus-tollens situation. It’s at least arguable that school isn’t something kids should be subjected to either.

    And even without such radicalism, clearly there could be a distinction made between school and childhood TV stardom. There are all kinds of ethical and legal constraints at work in schools that seem only barely to exist in the world of TV. We also grade (literally) the experiences appropriate to each age. A 5-year-old can’t give informed consent to learning about some things that are more appropriate for an 18-year-old, and so, we generally withhold such things. I really clear example is sex-ed – it happens in certain ways at certain ages. That doesn’t seem true in TV land (except for the before-mentioned restriction against child pornography). And while that restriction obviously makes sense, it’s pretty minimal compared with the sort of graded education students generally receive.

    re 3 – what would count as proof of “present-day harm” to children? Why is it hard to prove? Isn’t it just enough to have some baseline notion of an ordinary healthy existence and then show why childhood TV/movie/whatever acting deviates from that?

    The values-of-childhood line of thinking seems similar to what I’ve just said about 3.

  3. juan says:

    1. Yes, I agree that if we could prove a causal relationship between starting as a child in entertainment and having a bad life later on, this would be a very good argument. But it is unlikely to turn out like this. There are many examples of children in entertainment who did well later too. The likes of Shirley Temple or Jodie Foster.
    2. Informed consent just didn’t seem sufficient to me, on its own at least. But maybe I was wrong. Maybe consent is the default option, and anything that deviates from that needs a stronger justification. There are activities where consent is mandatory, like sexual relations, and other activities where it can be bypassed, such as sending kids to school. Perhaps one could argue that in the school case there is a more important interest of the child that is served, that’s why we can go without consent. But in entertainment there may be no such interest, so you have no reason to violate the consent condition.
    3. The harm I was thinking about had to do with how exactly children are supposed to be harmed by the fact that parents are making money off of them and spending it, since these children never had the money to begin with.
    Also, in my comments I was trying to suggest that the idea of an ordinary healthy existence, as you call it, may be separated from that of any lack-of-harm. I was saying that even if there is no harm to the child, such a life would be bad. Just like one can argue that even if the regular cannabis user doesn’t harm herself, she still is not leading the right kind of life, being spaced out most of the time. So yes, TV children deviate from the idea of a healthy existence, but not by being harmed in any way. I don’t know if you agree with this distinction, but this is what I was trying to get at.

    I think, all in all, I am much more impressed with good-life arguments in this case, than with arguments based on harm.

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