How Hollywood Harms Child Actors
Remember those old shows you used to watch? Maybe you grew up on Full House, Diff'rent Strokes, or Hannah Montana. When you were young, you saw the child actors on those shows and thought, "They've got it made." Curious as to what projects they're doing now, you decided to look them up. What you found shocked and confused you. Criminal records, drug use, mental health problems: the young actor you grew up with is now so far from the image you saw on television all those years ago. But looking back, were you truly seeing them back then?
If the audience could peak behind the curtain, they may find a completely different story. One rife with systematic abuse, stolen childhoods, and a loss of identity. Children are thrust into the turbulent world of Hollywood, often at a very young age, and forced to endure all the pain and hardships that come with it. These circumstances leave many child stars broken, causing them to adopt damaging habits, develop untreated mental illness, and suffer from the effects of their own erratic tenancies. Much like falling stars, they shine bright for a mere moment in time, before fizzling to dust within the earth's atmosphere.
While it's easy to believe the lives of the celebrities we see on TV is the height of glamour, that doesn't mean they don't have their fair share of stressors. The rise to the top for these actors and actresses is a steep slope, with them constantly trying to stay relevant in the public eye. If you don't get enough roles, if you don't make enough appearances, your star will fade. So they always have to be looking for the next big thing, auditioning for the next blockbuster. The kind of lifestyle these people live would put a monument of stress on any adult. One can only imagine what psychological effect it can have on a child.
How Parents Harm Child Actors
Unfortunately, there are very few laws that protect child actors from this severe burnout. The Shirley Temple Act made child actors exempt from child labor laws. As a result, rules put in place to protect these young actors were often spotty at best. Children often have to go through rigorous training, preform back-to-back auditions, and sacrifice their free time to perfect their lines. All the while, there is an immense amount of pressure on their success.
Hundreds of people's money, reputation, and success all hinge on this one child's performance. Rather than being an innocent child, they are a single cog in the machine, required to work as intended so the whole operation doesn't go under. When a child is in this kind of position, what they need most is a proper support group, not adoring fans. Most importantly, it's critical that they have the love and support of their parents, to give them a sense of balance in the chaotic world of Hollywood. Unfortunately, not all children are that lucky. In fact, for some child stars their parents are part of the problem.
We've seen plenty of examples of parents taking advantage of their children's fame. The parents of Lindsay Lohan played no small part in the subsequent infamous meltdowns of their child, and Drew Barrymore's childhood was characterized by nothing but abuse and emotional neglect from her family. While there are many parents of child actors who not only treat them fairly, but also show them the love and support they deserve, situations like this are an unfortunate commonality that can't just be overlooked.
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When they find out their child could make them more money than they could, some parents jump on the bandwagon of overworking and overexposing their child. Since these actors are still minors and under the custody of their parents, there are very few laws in place to protect the finances earned by these children from their legal guardians. When the child becomes the sole breadwinner of a family, it puts a tremendous amount of pressure on them that they are entirely unfit to deal with. Something that is often compounded by the pressure placed on them by their parents.
It's natural for a parent to want their child to do well, but when that desire is fueled by money or a desire to live vicariously through their child, that can have damaging effects on a child's psyche. Any happiness they may get from a successful role landed is blotted out by the unquenchable demand to always do better, giving them the impression that they will never quite be good enough for themselves or their parents.
The Toddler-to-Trainwreck Pipeline
This success-oriented mindset not only damages the child mentally, it also has the capacity to damage the child physically. When fame and money are being put before the child's health and wellbeing, it subconsciously teaches the child to disregard their own personal needs. This may come in the form of developing eating disorders, refusing to get help for addictions, and reluctance to report sexual assault within their workplace environment. The root cause of all these issues stems from the mindset the industry has instilled in them since childhood, to ignore their own wellbeing and safety if it affects the studio's bottom line.
Rather than being seen as people, they are seen as objects, simply there to be adored by the public and make money. Always having to be the "perfect little angel" or else risk the reputation of the studio. Over the years they've been wound so tight that for some it's only a matter of time before they snap, having to deal with both the loss of their childhood and the loss of their innocence.
So what can we as the audience do to make sure these child stars get the justice they deserve? The first step lies with reforming what it means to be a child star. When we can't count on people to protect the well-being of these children on their own, we need to turn to the legal system to make reforms to the child labor laws, or in this case, lack thereof. Having checks and balances to protect the lives of these young stars will make all the difference. In the places where laws can't touch, it's vital to educate those around those children.
While this may be a bitter pill to swallow, our adoration of life on the silver screen is part of the problem. The acceptance of the inner workings of the industry and the cost of fame has blinded us to the damaging effects they have on actors, child or otherwise. The damage done to these young stars isn't something the industry, or the audience, should ignore. The only way we can change what happens behind the scenes is if we accept the reality that not all that glitters is gold.