Wanted: a Code to Save Kids of Reality TV

Some people are so determined to have at least their 15 minutes of fame, they will do anything to get it. Anything includes inviting the media into their homes and their private lives — and exposing their children to the general public. As The Wrap’s expose on reality TV demonstrated, there are significant adverse consequences […]

Last Updated: July 21, 2009 @ 3:35 PM

Some people are so determined to have at least their 15 minutes of fame, they will do anything to get it.

Anything includes inviting the media into their homes and their private lives — and exposing their children to the general public. As The Wrap’s expose on reality TV demonstrated, there are significant adverse consequences to children who are exposed in these situations.

While some very young children may find the initial exposure “fun” (after all, most children would jump at the chance to be on television), the real problem is that no one is looking out for these children’s interests in the long term.

Scenes involving private family matters where children are present, or are involved, once displayed on the small screen are there for posterity, subject to being played over and over again, put on YouTube and available to the media when something remarkable takes place in the future involving the same family or children.

While getting on TV may be fun to a 4 or a 6 year old at the time it happens, what is broadcast may not be fun later in life, and may be the subject of particular ridicule. When teenagers are involved, the stakes are even higher. The type of conduct broadcast may be more embarrassing, and viewers who judge teenagers will certainly do so differently than “that cute little 4 year old girl.”

Historically, when children are employed as actors or artists, their contracts are subject to the approval of the Family Court in California. In order to bind the child talent to a contract, the contract must have that approval — and most production companies insist upon such approval before employing a child, to insure that they get the benefit of their bargain.

The statutory scheme set forth in the Family Code for approval of such contracts addresses the financial aspects of the arrangement. In order to protect the child’s earnings to a small extent, the scheme sets forth a procedure wherein 15 percent of the earnings are placed in trust so as to be available to the child at a later date.

However, this statutory framework does not consider whether the employment of the child is in his or her best interest. Nor does it address matters affecting children who appear on reality television.

We have all heard the stories of children who were overworked when they were child stars, and who complained, later in life, of having been unable to experience a carefree childhood. One prominent example is Brooke Shields, who has often lamented the fact that her mother was more driven to manage her career and make her a star than to take care of her emotional needs as a young child growing up.

While we have a system in place to address concerns over children who are allegedly subject to physical, and in some cases, emotional abuse, oddly enough we have no system in place to address these issues as they relate to child actors — nor as they relate to children who are the innocent bystanders of their fame-hungry parents narcissistic decision-making.

While it is true that millions of children in this country live their lives every day without being subjected to oversight that may protect them from the day-to-day bad judgment calls made by their parents, the population of children that are subjected to public exposure either as a result of being broadcast on reality television (e.g. “Jon and Kate Plus 8”), or exposure through providing acting services, is relatively finite.

It would not be that difficult to legislatively mandate that such arrangements be subject to approval by the Family Court. This approval should encompass more than just entrusting 15 percent of the paid child actor’s earnings to a fund intended to protect those earnings from their parents.

Such approval should also encompass a determination as to whether allowing the child to appear in the series, or perform the services, is in the child’s best interests. That standard has to encompass consideration of the future uses of the footage broadcast.

We enacted child labor laws in this country in the early part of the 20th century. At that time, no one anticipated that at some point we would have television at all, let alone cable TV and the Internet.

These new technologies give rise to new issues. Abuse or exploitation of children through these media is a real problem, and it requires a real solution.

Fred Silberberg is a Los Angeles attorney who has been specializing in family law for more than 20 years. For more than 10 years, he has authored an often controversial and oft- quoted opinion column in the Los Angeles Daily Journal; he also regularly quoted by media including te Los Angeles Times, the Los Angeles Daily News, the Los Angeles Business Journal, USA Today, Entertainment Tonight, E! Entertainment Television, KCBS and KCAL, among others.