'Kate Plus 8' - Kids on reality TV facing more scrutiny
By David Zurawik
May 29, 2010 | 10:32 AM
For the past three years, viewers have watched the Gosselin children grow up on "John & 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 dissater for them."
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 Petersen, who played Donna Reed's son in the popular 1960s family comedy "The Donna Reed Show" on ABC. Petersen 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."
Petersen 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.
TLC, the cable channel most heavily involved in showing reality TV programs featuring children, declined to be interviewed. But in an interview last year, TLC president Eileen O'Neill stressed the "opportunities" that being in the show offered the Gosselins — chances to travel and experience new adventures.
Annabelle McDonald, executive producer of WeTV's "Raising Sextuplets," says the most important factor for her is that Bryan and Jenny Masche, parents of the six children in the show, are in control.
"I am always checking in with them asking if everything is going OK," McDonald says. "They have to be comfortable with everything — comfortable with us being there, comfortable with the people on the set."
McDonald says she and the crew try to be "supersensitive to the needs of the kids," shooting only one five-day week out of a month.
"We pace it so we're not there all the time," she says. "When we are there, it is their routine, and we're just following it. … We try not to disrupt their routine. When it's nap time, it's nap time."
According to McDonald, the parents "see the show as a way to document their childhood — they love that it's being documented."
Child psychiatrist Dr. Jenna Saul-Kuntz says that any examination of childhood and the potential effects of media documentation of it should start with the Dionne quintuplets, five identical girls born in rural Canada in 1934.
"We have to take a look at what happened to those quintuplets, because I think it more accurately reflects what's going on with these reality TV shows than what would be reflected even by child stars [in scripted series]," Saul-Kuntz says. "I say that because I think acting in a fake setting as a child star on TV is different from being in a reality TV setting where the cameras are always running [in the real setting of their lives]."
Shortly after their birth in the pre-TV era, the Dionne girls were put on public display at a nursery, were photographed endlessly and became the models for best-selling dolls. Ultimately, they came to believe that the experience ruined their lives.
"Multiple births should not be confused with entertainment, nor should they be an opportunity to sell products," the three surviving Dionne sisters wrote in an open letter published in 1997 in Time magazine. "We sincerely hope a lesson will be learned from examining how our lives were forever altered by our childhood experience."
Murt believes we can learn from such examples, and can do better by the kids of reality TV.
"Reality TV is not 100 percent reality, let's face it," he says. "The producers know what kind of show they want to film, and they create it. And you know what? That's not against the law. But my concern as a policy-maker is to make sure that the kids who participate are protected. … If we can get that, it's a start."