Smile for the camera

(Originally published in The California Aggie)

At the height of their fame, Jon and Kate Gosselin and their eight kids were one of America’s favorite families. But celebrity came at a price.

Their TLC reality show, “Jon and Kate Plus 8,” documented the everyday struggles and triumphs of raising six-year-old twins and two-year-old sextuplets. Episodes gave an up close-and-personal peek at their lives in suburban Pennsylvania – including theme park outings, bedtime routines, temper tantrums and everything in between.

Now, thanks to Jon and Kate’s ugly divorce in 2009 and recent reports that two of the sextuplets have been expelled from school, audiences and child psychology experts have once again fired up one of the most heated debates of the last decade: Should kids be filmed for reality TV programs?

Jon and Kate are hardly the only parents to allow cameras to capture their kids’ every move. The Duggar family of Arkansas has been the subject of countless specials and series, most recently “19 Kids and Counting” (guess why they got their own show), and kids are featured in popular shows from “Run’s House” to “Keeping Up With the Kardashians.” Americans are simply fascinated by famous families and their children.

Still, the legality of such programs is questionable. Children who appear on reality TV shows aren’t subject to the same child labor regulations as child actors or performers because they are “participants,” not “employees.” This means that children on reality shows, like the Gosselin and Duggar kids, could be filmed for long hours or for days on end. The studio is under no legal obligation to adhere to commonly accepted child labor practices and limitations.

An investigation by the Los Angeles Times in June found that 11 shows currently filming, including “19 Kids and Counting,” the “Real Housewives” franchise and “Raising Sextuplets,” had not filed paperwork to hire minors.

The psychological impact of a life led in front of TV cameras is also cause for concern. The Gosselin kids’ recent expulsion from school certainly raises doubts about the quality of life a child can have when his or her existence is broadcast on TV for the world to see.

Hilary Levey, sociologist and post-doctoral fellow at Harvard University, said in an op-ed for USA Today that the cameras force kids to perform constantly, even as they are supposedly “being themselves.”

“Unlike, say, Miley Cyrus, who played the role of Hannah Montana, reality TV parents essentially consent for their children to “play” themselves,” Levey said. “Children’s personalities are dissected by viewers, and any embarrassing activities, like potty training, are preserved on the Internet – or in syndication.”

While participating in a reality show could have its benefits, the cons far outweigh the pros. Kate Gosselin often defends her decision to continue her show by citing all the opportunities her children have been given, such as going on fancy trips and getting free stuff like custom-built playhouses. But at what point does the money cease to pay kids back for their lack of privacy or quiet family time that most children take for granted?

Would the Gosselin kids, if given the chance, trade their action-packed Hawaiian birthday vacation (filmed for the show, of course) for the normal life they had before “Jon and Kate?”

Unfortunately, the kids are never able to speak out until they’re adults and by then it’s too late. I have a sneaking suspicion that in 20 years the Gosselin kids will publish a tell-all book, and we’ll all be ashamed that we simply sat and watched as their young lives fell apart before our eyes.

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