By: Nicole Damron
July 25th, 2023
For years, children have been a focal point of reality television. Whether you were watching Jon and Kate raise their eight children, or waiting to see who was at the top of the pyramid on Dance Moms, audiences have been enthralled by “family” reality TV for some time. For the most part, it all seems harmless. The average viewer gets to see inside another “average” family’s life, which could be made more interesting by including children.
Since shows like “Dance Moms” and the Duggar Family’s “19 Kids and Counting” ushered in a new era of child-centric reality TV, many questions have been raised about how participating in reality television shows could be harmful to the well-being and safety of young children. The presence of cameras can make people behave very differently than they normally would, and do not allow for much privacy.
This lack of privacy can be harmful and potentially dangerous for children, especially children who are forced to have their lives on camera from a young age. Many young reality television stars become so without consent — something most young children don’t even know they have the right to give.
While there are measures put in place to protect child stars and their earnings — namely Coogan Accounts which are trust funds specifically for child actors — these protections often do not apply to child reality stars. Under state laws, these children are not protected by the same child labor and performance laws that otherwise protect Hollywood child actors. This is due to the fact that most child reality stars do not have separate contracts from their parents, rendering them and their money helpless to the will of their parents. In the case of the Duggar family, this proved to be even more harmful when combined with the family’s Christian Fundamentalist ideals: many of which forced the children into subservience.
Instances of this were recently revealed to the public with the airing of the “Shining Happy People” documentary on Amazon Prime, which exposes the Duggar family for child abuse and mistreatment during filming of their reality series “19 Kids and Counting” on TLC. The documentary revealed the true nature of the show that it was an exploitative façade that continued production amid horrific abuse and failed to compensate the children – arguably the stars of the show — for their participation in the series.
One of the oldest siblings, Jill Duggar Dillard, came forward in the documentary to reveal that she nor her siblings were ever paid for their part in the show, and went over a decade before receiving any kind of compensation for her role. After the show’s cancellation in 2015, Jill and her husband Derek Dillard went on to star in their own series, a spinoff of “19 Kids” called “Counting On”.
After allowing camera presence during the home birth of their first child, Jill and Derek approached TLC asking for assistance in paying insurance bills following the birth. They were met with refusal, and instead were informed that the network had “paid the family”. They later found out this meant that Jill’s father had sole control over any profits the family made from their respective shows.
To make matters worse, not only were the children not being compensated for their roles in the show, but were being forced to participate in the midst of horrific sexual and mental abuse. It was revealed in the new documentary that Josh Duggar, the oldest Duggar sibling, had molested 4 of his young sisters between March 2002 and 2003 — all of which was hidden by the Duggar parents in order to avoid controversy. It’s hard to think about what other things may have been allowed to happen behind closed doors while the show was being filmed.
Other reality shows like “Dance Moms” have also proven to be unsafe environments for children, and many “Dance Moms” alums have come forward to confirm this. In a 2022 interview with Cosmopolitan, former show favorite Maddie Ziegler shared the reality of being a child on a reality show — which includes being subject to manipulation and is not as “real” as networks would like us to think.
“People thought I was a brat because in all my interviews, I would say, “I’m the best. I know I’m going to win.” But that’s because the producer was telling me to say that. I don’t think I’m better than everyone else. I was just doing whatever they told me to do because I thought that’s what you did. They set you up for failure.”
She goes on to condemn the toxic environment coach Abby Lee Miller fostered, and acknowledges that it was not a healthy place for young girls to be growing up in. Miller has famously been scrutinized for her behavior towards the young contestants on the show, much of which consisted of verbal tirades, manipulation and even alleged assault.
The psychological effects of being forced to perform for a camera at a young age can be long-lasting, especially for reality stars. Children on reality television are not playing characters — rather, they are playing themselves. This can lead to many kinds of identity issues during influential stages in a child’s development. Dr. Drew Pinsky, co-author of “The Mirror Effect: How Celebrity Narcissism Is Seducing America”, states that reality television shows can “open the kids to a level of public scrutiny, of shame and of failure”, which most children are not equipped to deal with at such a young age.
As these children grow up with potentially stunted senses of identity and self, it can make them vulnerable to manipulation later in life. Paul Peterson, former star of “The Donna Reed Show” and founder of nonprofit A Minor Consideration — which advocates for the rights of child actors — claims that, “Down the line, once the show is over and the cameras have gone, there will likely be no help for them from predators and others seeking to take advantage of them.” In the case of the Duggars, this was proven to be true as the children struggled to distance themselves from their family and “19 Kids and Counting.”
America loves reality television, but at what cost? Networks need to do a better job of protecting the children featured in their programming, and ensure that they are kept safe and well cared for behind the scenes.
This begins with expanding child actor labor laws to include reality stars, emphasizing the importance of consent from young actors; implementing resources like on-set therapists and counselors that encourage open dialogue about life in front of the cameras; and doing due diligence to protect children from potentially harmful behavior or influence.
No one is suggesting that we keep kids off of television, but creating a culture where speaking up is encouraged could save a lot of young actors from closed-door situations that cause lifelong trauma.
Nicole Damron is a senior majoring in Arts and Humanities and Professional and Public Writing with a minor in Spanish. She aspires to work as a culture and entertainment writer, potentially freelance. In her leisure time Nicole enjoys playing guitar and trumpet, true crime, listening to music, and sleeping in concerningly late.