Considerations for Children on Reality TV

*This was written in December of 2018 as a final paper for a philosop: Being and Knowing. Only receiving a markdown for its lack of official sources, it’s being reposted here in full; and while many conclusions could be drawn from the subject, I wrote and continue to write only of my own experience and reflections.

Considerations for Children on Reality TV

Jacob Roloff

Being and Knowing - PHL 201

Final Paper

Reality television began, according to general consensus and this(1) Variety article, on January 11th, 1973 with PBS’s, An American Family, a show following the daily life of the Loud’s and their five children. The same article quickly pulls a quote characterizing the outcome of that show from their at-the-time review of it, saying, “producer Craig Gilbert ‘set out to capture the living patterns and mentality of a fairly typical middle-America household, but instead recorded the drama of a family in the process of coming apart.” And from this so encouraging a description, there have been birthed dozens if not several hundred of the same type of show, focused around families and their children.

I will mention briefly the economic motivations for a family to consider signing on to a show with their children, as well as and intertwined with the opportunistic motivations (i.e. better school, college, vacations). Later I will address what I think is the outweighing concern or question, that is, in the lack of normalcy the child would have in growing up in some importantly formative years, as well as the emotional, moral, psychological, familial implications that go with having cameras recording your daily life like flies on the wall. Before any of that, however, it should be clarified that there are about four subgenera to the larger scope of ‘reality tv’, where I am considering 1) throughput this paper: 1) Docu-style, where camera crews follow the daily interactions of ordinary folk wherever they may be, i.e. Little People, Big World, 2) Docu-soap, where a camera crew follows the daily life of celebrities, i.e. The Osbournes, 3) Gameshow/Talent Search, where camera crews film contestants competing in real-time against one another, i.e. Survivor, and finally 4) Hidden Camera, a self-explanatory style which usually took the form of practical jokes, i.e. The Jamie Kennedy Experiment.

Economically the positives appear to be: easy money and steady income. For the parents, who are the deciders in this, the pros are hard to ignore: their kids can be provided for in all their necessities and much of their desires, they could expand their range of comfort in the way of new houses, cars, or nicer vacations, quality of life, they could begin saving easily for their children’s future higher education, and the parents themselves could largely go about pursuing their own hobbies and desires given the ‘background’ nature of the cameras which are bringing in this new and significant income. I imagine the cons, in contrast to the pros, would be almost nonexistent in an economic sense. The parents would have the option, perhaps never believing they would have had it otherwise, or not at least until old age, to discontinue any mandatory labor that they did not sufficiently enjoy (provided the financials were handled correctly).

The situation may not turn out so neatly in all families or for all different variety of shows (or production companies), however. For instance one family may have been swindled in their contract into getting one paycheck split amongst them, and in that case it is likely that the parents would split the money to the effect of 50/50, and then divvy out the rest to the children as a sort of allowance, however increased. It may not be exactly those numbers, but the distribution would be non-arbitrated and would likely be correspondingly inadequate. With this there are labor concerns; firstly of payment for work done, and secondly the distribution of that payment (whatever it may be) to the child(ren). It should be noted that children on television or acting in movies are exempt from certain labor laws federally, with restrictions able to be applied by state (California thankfully retaining some of the most stringent). As taken from the U.S. Department of Labor website(2), “Minors employed as actors or performers in … television productions are exempt from Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) coverage.” Another and much more forward thinking for the child(ren) type of contract would require payment addressed individually to each family member, discouraging any misuse or mismanagement that might occur with a child’s monies. Nonetheless, there seems to be overwhelming, although maybe superficially material, evidence in the positive when considering the monetary side of this decision. One possible and significant negative would be in a family’s potential dependence solely on the funds obtained through such a lucrative opportunity, which would, when stopped, cause some level of destabilization to the family, however privileged the circumstances.

Now, it seems time to consider the sheer strangeness and profound effects that the mechanics of ‘reality television’ may have on anyone in their developing years. To consider that is to question what ‘normal’ means when we say, “normal childhood,” as it relates to how a childhood should be, or if there is a way a childhood should be. Many of the effects may not be strictly provable or recognizable to the child for some years or until some disillusion comes about from the world in which they’ve been placed. Nevertheless, there is a strangeness that they will eventually be cognizant of. It now also seems appropriate to disclose that I was a part of one of these reality shows beginning at the age of six continuing until the age of eighteen. I had never seriously considered the when of filming because as a young child it was a part of almost every memory. My actual age at the start was only brought to my attention recently by a former producer of ours, while he was expressing a measure of awareness for his part in capturing what I can now better describe as “the living patterns and mentality of a fairly typical middle-America household, [while] instead record[ing] the drama of a family in the process of coming apart.”

I have always had the question nagging in the back of my head, though, and I believe that producer did, too, “To what effect are the observers to the outcome?” Would not the presence of two, sometimes three, cameras 5-7 days a week, each with a sound engineer, a ‘CA’ camera assistant, two ‘PA’s production assistants, a field producer and a miscellaneous smattering more influence the “living patterns and mentality” of any typical American household? Where is the line drawn to determine a normal family drama from a constructed or induced one? This, I believe, is the great unaddressed question in the experiment of reality TV, and not for lack of thinking the question exists but for lack of desire to address its complexity.  Reality TV has now become a necessary division of television entertainment, for to ignore those profits as a production company would be gross mismanagement surely. And yet, on reflection, it seems so obviously superfluous; a mere side game in our colosseum of entertainment; and that is the purpose of such shows: to be a place you can look and say, “Them,” and their problems, and not, “Me,” and my problems, for at least a little while. If the entertainers are eventually broken by the process then all the better, for they broke and I didn’t, and yet some may never break, and some may even thrive under it, and when children on TV misbehave then all the better, because its those kids and not mine.

One must also consider the neutrality of being in a workforce—“just following orders”—jumping through the hoops to move ahead in their field, with no personal ill will toward any affected persons of their job. Absolutely, not all of the crew for any one show will think consciously about the potential effects being caused, and it doesn’t seem that you can really fault them for that. And so I do not mean to allude to those everyday producers or cameramen being evil or exploitative as individuals; however, that neutrality as a defense can only go so far. Of course, the family did sign a contract consenting to the whole ordeal. “You will be filmed for so long and so many seasons; to be paid this and that much; …” All the particulars in order, what could be the contention but immaterial experiencing of the ordeal? And it seems difficult to prove that ones life without an experience would have been different than ones life having experienced it already. Furthermore, it begs the question of whether this wondering of what was ‘supposed to be’ even matters.

If I was supposed to have a normal life, with tall parents and no cameras, then there is credence in saying that I have been cheated; extra baggage has been placed on an already surely to be confusing life on Earth, and it needs to be rectified so I can get back on course. That is if our idea of ‘supposed to’ means anything at all. And if it doesn’t mean anything, then what was thought to be supposed is actually entirely irrelevant, for it is not. As a rule, this may be problematic, so allow me to explain.

If I experience a life with dwarf parents, although I believed I was supposed to have tall parents, I would end up either hating my real parents, wanting replacements so as to get started on my real, supposed to be life, or I would be forced to disregard the mere idea of a life that is in fact not mine. However, if one were to witness an assault, that action is indeed not supposed to happen and it is capable for there to be done something about its cessation. But for my purposes the situation is of a background and not demanding nature.

So, granting my theory that suppositions about how our life should be do not necessarily guarantee their validity, it seems that children as subjects on reality TV is OK, because the normal life they were supposed to have doesn’t actually exist or matter inasmuch as they are actually a participant in an abnormal life on TV—a difference of Is and Ought. And yet, there intuitively seems to be a prematurity to it all; a danger that may turn out well or bad but, is it worth the risk? This is the consideration of my paper.

I take myself to have handled certain aspects of my experience well and others not so much. I do know that the access which People in general had to my siblings and I was a huge soul-building opportunity, among many other opportunities, and especially on the rising tide of social media. By access, I mean literally the ability to perceive our lives and then make their own judgements about them. Then, with social media, they had the opportunity to communicate those judgements to us directly, be them positive or negative. As it is well known, the anonymity possible with social media encourages a cruelty not generally seen in civil discourse, and receiving this type of vitriol had the potential for real damage to self-image and -confidence. For friends and love interests who may have been collaterally involved, it was sometimes too much to bear, and so this situation became one of those necessary ‘first date disclosures,’ if they weren’t already aware. The most frustrating part about this public access was in its limited nature. We lived our lives, cameras filmed it, and we continued living our lives. For the most part, we (at least we siblings) didn’t follow the editing process or any logistics after that, and hardly even saw the final product in the episodic way it was presented to everyone else. There was then this extreme pressure to prop up the characterized version of our family that we were unfamiliar with, rather than risk the actual volatility of what a natural family could be. Thus, we became, to an extent, censored and corralled into an image that we did not naturally grow into, but were instead written into. If a TV family had been edited to be wholesome and inclusive, then their hard on immigration political views would be off the table, for instance; on the show, on social media, in writing, videos, anything, it would be off limits for risk of pulling the curtain on the so curiously named Reality television show. And if cameras are filming you five to seven days a week, eight or more hours a day, there will eventually be an existential confusion on what is the real family and what is the characterized family. The transitions would become seamless.

This access of the public also has the possibility, I have seen, of giving the impression that people intrinsically care about you, what you say, and what you do, and that is not true, necessarily. As I mentioned with the colosseum reference earlier, the reality TV product is created to be a spectacle, and so people come for that quick flash, and not to care about its cause. This point, that people are not waiting on your every word, inasmuch as you are not entertaining them has been quite liberating for me. Being a child on TV can become your identity until you have at least lived more years off of TV than on it. Being defined by something that on an even deeper level has defined you by characterization (or by caricature) can be a very confusing thing to a kid who doesn’t know the first thing about anything. The best soul-building outcome for this in my opinion is for one to use these challenges to reality’s definition to spur your own explorations into the question, to create your own and your own personality; something that everyone should learn but that these kids on TV are forced to learn, or to deal with the anxieties and/or privileges of having it go unaddressed. The prematurity I spoke of is only to the extent of the pressure and the breaking point of the child. It is not premature if the child learns goodness (to be defined) from the ordeal, but it was perhaps premature if the child is confused such that he lives a life of someone else’s formation, and so remains thinking they belong in whatever caricature they’ve been given.

The primary consideration of having children on reality TV would be found in what those children actually say, think and feel about being on TV. To the extent that a parent is attentive to their child(ren), they will not overextend their child’s abilities to apprehend this new and “abnormal” reality. The other considerations explored herein, and many more besides, should all be taken seriously even with scant ‘hard’ evidence, save for the word of a mere child. And there it seems to be: a child’s value can never sink solely to their role in the entertainment of others, that is to be a mere means, they must also retain the right to self-determination, to be respected as their own end. The awareness of this line being crossed depends on the humane consideration of the child(ren)’s autonomy and right to decide, if not at six years old then at seven, or five, or eight, or nine and so on; but always the adults and industry must be listening, and always should they be considering the impact on the child(ren).


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