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Public Administration and Institutions That Commit Child Abuse or Neglect: Part 6 – Protecting Children on the Public Stage

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Erik Devereux
September 29, 2023

This column is the sixth and final in a series on a painful and disturbing topic: child abuse and neglect. The focus is on the unfolding crisis for U.S. public administration systems dealing with corporations that have become systematic sources of child abuse and neglect (the previous columns: first, second, third, fourth, fifth). This column explores what to do about the ongoing exploitation of children on the public stage—meaning children who participate in music, television, film or sports ostensibly with some form of compensation for appearing in public. Although there are regulations in place that are designed to protect children from harmful work practices in such settings (such as long hours or exposure to physical risks), the harsh reality is that many such children experience terrible outcomes as adults. The issue is not regulating the workplace per se but making sure that the consequences of being a child entertainer ultimately are not harmful in the long term.

Just in case you think this is not much of a problem, ponder the title of this best-selling book written by former child TV star Jeanette McCurdy about her experiences under the control of her manager mother: I’m Glad My Mom Died. Or watch two absolutely heart-rending interviews conducted by former child star Drew Barrymore with McCurdy and separately with Brooke Shields that dealt head on with the ways their lives were so twisted by their experiences in the entertainment industry as children. Barrymore’s childhood drug addiction and stints in rehab before she turned 18 are well documented. Shields had to deal with the consequences of performing in very adult movies that sexualized her while very young.

What happened here, and has happened to a large number of other children thrust into the public spotlight by the entertainment and sports industries, is that their parents and guardians often pushed them to perform against their will and also exposed them to an adult world that was harmful to their well-being. Ultimately, some of the prime beneficiaries of these activities are the media companies that produce and distribute the resulting products, and the adult talent whose careers benefit by including children in their performances. The huge amounts of money involved have overwhelmed the regulations intended to protect children from such harm.

Governments need to take action to prevent this type of harm from occurring with increasing frequency as children get included in the rapidly expanding genre of “reality TV”. I have some modest proposals in this regard, recognizing that it is not practical to insist that people under the age of 17 not appear on the public stage. These proposals include the following:

  • A ban on anyone under the age of 17 appearing in a reality TV competition of any type including but not limited to music performance competitions such as The Voice, America’s Got Talent and American Idol. (If you think this is a bit “over the top” compare these two performances by Grace Vanderwaal at age 12 and now.)
  • A regime of random well-being interviews of child performers on the sets of TV or films similar to how random drug testing is done on athletes. These interviews would be conducted by a team of professionals to assess the psychological condition of the child performer and, if necessary, intervene.
  • Mandatory, extensive counseling for any child hired to perform in TV, movies or other similar productions. This counseling would be designed to help the child performer adjust to an adult life which might not include professional performance opportunities.
  • If possible, a ban on parents acting as the managers for their children’s careers. Instead, there would be a required appointment of an unrelated manager to ensure that parents could not push children to do work against their will. This requirement would be mandatory for children performing in lead roles in TV or movies.

In keeping with the overall direction of this series, I also recommend there be very significant penalties levied against any production company that was found to have looked the other way when children were not treated with care during their performances. In the case of Jeanette McCurdy, for example, Nickelodeon should have been held responsible for what she endured when her mother continually forced her to perform against her will. If it were me, the executives at such companies would be subject to criminal prosecution and their companies charged with huge financial penalties to help compensate the victims.

If anything, children are increasingly being exploited on the public stage because of the rapidly expanding influence of social media platforms. This is happening in parallel with the ongoing erosion of protections against child labor which was the subject of my last column. Ultimately, this series of columns is calling for a concerted effort within public administration to reverse these trends entirely. The 21st century should not be marked in the United States or elsewhere by the increased abuse and neglect of children for the financial or other benefit of adults. We have to ask what kind of country would allow that to happen? Let’s make the answer, “not our country.”

Author: Erik Devereux is a consultant to nonprofits and higher education and is an executive-in-residence at Hood College in Frederick, Maryland. He has a B.S. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (Political Science, 1985) and a Ph.D. from the University of Texas at Austin (Government, 1993). He is the author of Methods of Policy Analysis: Creating, Deploying, and Assessing Theories of Change (available for free here). Email: [email protected]. Twitter: @eadevereux.

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