You’re listening to Episode 34 of the Trafficking Dispatch, a biweekly podcast that briefs you on human trafficking issues in a brief amount of time. I’m your host, Ariel Niforatos. In this episode, we’ll learn about child reality TV stars and their potential link to labor exploitation they experience.
When we think of exploitation, we usually think of its most obvious forms, like assault, forced labor, and unfair pay. But there are subtler forms of exploitation that can result in less obvious problems, like social and emotional damage. These “hidden” damages perfectly describe the very visible controversy surrounding child reality TV shows. Reality TV programs are really popular worldwide because they give a behind-the-scenes view into some sort of daily drama.
The people who star in these shows often become famous for their successes and their failures. Eventually, even their off-camera lives get attention whether they want it or not. Child stars, in particular, receive a lot of attention for their often exaggerated personalities and uniquely mature talents. For example, many Americans have heard of the 11-year-old singer Angelica Hale, who, at ten years old, performed Alicia Keys’ “Girl on Fire” on America’s Got Talent and absolutely wowed audiences with her voice that was better than many of the adult contestants’. Additionally, many famous actors and singers—including Emma Stone, Aaron Paul, Jamie Chung, Justin Timberlake, and Jennifer Hudson—began their careers on reality TV as teens or even younger.
However, though reality TV continues to star child actors who gain immense popularity, this practice is very controversial because of the many negative effects it can have on children. Many people argue that allowing young children to participate in reality TV not only harms their ability to focus on their education, but it also creates immense pressure for them since they are too young to deal with this kind of stress.
One example of the detrimental lifestyle that can result from child fame is Amber Portwood, a 28-year-old actress who starred on the reality TV shows 16 and Pregnant and Teen Mom in her late teens. Since starting her career as a teenager, Amber has struggled with substance abuse, served jail time for domestic abuse of her boyfriend, and had her second child just last year. Another example of a reality TV show that stars children is the Indian show Kutti Chutties, which centers around 3 to 6-year-old children asking questions about topics that are usually too mature for them to understand, such as sex. One psychiatrist, Dr. Jayanthini, noted that this program wasn’t age-inappropriate for its child actors, saying that these mature themes impair their emotional development and that “this is an invasion of their privacy and…amounts to abuse.”
Since both psychiatrists and the lives of so many former child reality TV stars show how being on reality TV has a very negative effect on children, there should be laws in place to protect children from being exploited in this manner, right? Well, in the United States, only California has effective legislation for child performers. That’s because they’re the center of the entertainment world. Their laws go to great lengths to specify exactly what kinds of entertainment work children can be involved in, the maximum number of hours children of various ages can work to make sure they stay in school, and other laws to protect children involved in the entertainment industry.
Similarly, in the article ‘CHILD ABUSE: THE GRIM REALITY ABOUT REALITY SHOWS’, author Naeesha Yusuf Halai documents some of the exploitation that occurs in this industry, including forcing children to be too mature for their age and the lack of “exit clauses” in many acting contracts. According to Halai, many child actors on reality TV are not properly protected by entertainment laws. In order to prevent their exploitation, Halai argues that we need more strict laws like the ones in California.
But even if a child were working in California, it is still hard to know if their labor is always ethical. Why? Because they’re still legal minors. Of course, minors can work in a lot of different jobs, like in a restaurant, at a store, as a babysitter, and a lot more. But when fame and a lot of money is involved, it can be hard to know if it’s what the child star really wants, or if it’s what their parents or managers want for them. That’s why we brought this topic up in one of our Instagram Story debates in the first place. I’m not saying that every child reality TV star is automatically exploited, but I am saying that we should be more careful consumers of reality TV, especially when it involves children, and that we should advocate for stricter child labor laws in our countries. If you are interested in learning more about the potentially exploitative nature of reality TV, I would recommend reading the article ‘Dance Moms,’ ‘Toddlers & Tiaras,’ and Child Abuse, which discusses the popular child beauty pageant show Toddlers and Tiaras. Another good article documenting the psychological effects of child fame is The Child Performer: The making of a star in the magazine Psychology Today. Finally, BBC News offers a brief but insightful overview of this topic in their article Child stars: Early start or too much too young?
Besides this first step in informing yourself, you may be wondering: what else can I can do about this issue? There are several important steps you can take. The first step is to share this knowledge with your friends and family whether they are consumers of this television or not. Second, advocate for better child labor laws in the entertainment industry in your country. If you’re from the US, we’ll provide a link to a state-by-state analysis of child labor entertainment laws. It’s a good place to start. Even if you’re not from the US, you can use it to compare with your country to see how child entertainment laws differ around the world.
A lot of times, we say that victims of labor exploitation are “hidden in plain sight” meaning that they’re the people we may run into at the grocery store and then never see again. But we don’t often think about the children we see repeatedly on reality TV. It’s definitely possible, and sadly already proven, that some children have been exploited and negatively impacted by the camera and the fame that comes with it.
But since we’re a youth-run podcast, we believe in the power of youth to help put an end to this issue.
And in speaking of youth doing something about labor exploitation and human trafficking, it’s time you’re your next Audible Audience submission! This episode’s submission comes from Hannah Ison in the USA. Take it away, Hannah!
Hannah: I'm Hannah Ison from I'm Giving Hope with Hannah, in Indiana, USA. I love fighting human trafficking by providing sustainable job opportunities for women that have been rescued, giving them the opportunity to earn a fair trade income by making beautiful jewelry and home decor. I also work at Hope Center Indy which is a refuge for women that have been rescued. I love being an intern with them and empowering these women all over the world.
This has been the Trafficking Dispatch with Ariel Niforatos. You can subscribe to our SoundCloud channel and tune into our next episode which will be released on March 10th at 5 pm. Or, if you would like to interact with us before then, you can visit our website at thetraffickingdispatch.com, follow us on our social media accounts – our handles are below – or email us with any questions or suggestions at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thank you for tuning into this episode, and we hope you’ll tune in again to join the fight against human trafficking.
Kutti Chutties: https://www.thequint.com/news/india/exploitation-of-children-for-entertainment-in-reality-tv-shows
California laws: https://www.employmentlawhandbook.com/wage-and-hour-laws/state-wage-and-hour-laws/california/child-labor-laws/entertainment-industry/
Naeesha Yusuf Halai article: http://www.worldresearchlibrary.org/up_proc/pdf/1116-151126484853-55.pdf
Toddlers and Tiaras article: https://www.thedailybeast.com/dance-moms-toddlers-and-tiaras-and-child-abuse
Psychology Today article: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/in-the-trenches/201106/the-child-performer
BBC News Article: https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-38001426 7. US Dept. of Labor: https://www.dol.gov/whd/state/childentertain.htm