Reality television has always favored young stars. But with the median age of stars having sunk to the single digits on some reality TV shows, child psychology and media experts are questioning whether the trend has gone too far.
Shows like "Jon and Kate Plus 8," "18 Kids and Counting," "Kid Nation" and "Baby Borrower," all of which place children at the center of the action, may be hurting kids on both sides of the screen, critics say.
"The child stars who are not on reality TV, they understand that what they're doing is a story, it's fantasy," said Nadine Kaslow, a clinical psychologist and Emory University professor. "For these reality kids, this is about their lives -- they're not just characters. It's about them."
Underscoring these concerns was the revelation Sunday that the 50-mile flight of a helium balloon believed to be carrying 6-year-old Falcon Heene was in fact an elaborate publicity stunt cooked up by the boy's father, Richard Heene, to promote what he hoped would be a new reality show. In one breathtaking stroke, Heene put a new face on parental ambition and celebrity envy, and renewed the question of whether pushing kids in front of reality TV cameras constitutes some kind of abuse.
Are parents who allow their children to be filmed for reality television guilty of exploitation? Or are they just part of a long entertainment tradition, stretching from "The Donna Reed Show" to Jackie Coogan to "Kids Say the Darndest Things."
"I can't think of any other time in media history that we've seen this kind of exploitation," Jeffrey McCall, professor of communications at DePauw University, told ABC News. "I'm afraid it might get worse before it gets better."
"I think it goes beyond Art Linkletter innocently talking to a couple of kids," he said. "The circumstances are much more concocted when you have producers going after kids on reality shows. ... When you've got these kids being videotaped from every angle, you know the kids aren't acting like they would otherwise.
"There are so many machinations going on behind the scenes that it's a joke to call it 'reality.'"
Kaslow said the collision of reality TV and real life could be painful for child performers.
"What we can say in general is that reality TV shows certainly have the imagination of the public," Kaslow said. "For these children, they're confusing. They're not able to be themselves. Their lives are being interrupted. This poor kid [Falcon Heene] at school -- what are they going to say to him? Are they going to call him 'Balloon Boy'? How is he going to handle the social pressure? He may feel guilty, he may feel embarrassed."
Robert Thomas, a student who was helping Heene develop a pitch for a new reality show that he described as "MythBusters-meets-mad scientist," said Heene used his children as "pawns." He talked about his first reaction to seeing the Heene family on national television.
"I said, 'Wow, Richard is using his children as pawns to facilitate a global media hoax that's going to give him enough publicity to temporarily attract A-list celebrity status and hopefully attract a network,'" Thomas wrote on the Web site Gawker.com.
The Heene family already had participated twice in the ABC reality program "Wife Swap" in which mothers from two sharply contrasting families temporarily switch broods.
Now the Heene parents are suspected of having coached their three sons -- Bradford, Ryo and Falcon -- to make false statements to police and the media.
That kind of coaching would violate bedrock rules of raising kids, Kaslow said.
"I thinks that it's really important to teach children about integrity and honesty, and one of the concerns I have when they're used in this kind of fashion is that we are not modeling that for them," she said. "And those are of course values that are really essential for healthy development.
"It's very confusing to this child. Here you watch on TV that you're up in the balloon, when you're really in the attic, it's incredibly confusing."
Paul Petersen, a former child actor who starred on the 1960s sitcom "The Donna Reed Show," is founder of "A Minor Consideration" a nonprofit organization founded to support current and former child actors. He sees reality TV as deeply problematic.
"Our traffic ... increased dramatically" in 2009, Peterson reports on his site. "It's not just Michael Jackson's needless death that is driving this increase, but the combined news of the children now thoughtlessly exposed on reality television without even the barest of protections, let alone fair compensation for the obvious work they are performing. History tells us that the coming years may be difficult."
Labor laws designed to protect child actors do not apply to reality shows, McCall pointed out.
"The law that applies for movies doesn't apply to kids who are in reality shows," he said. "The gist is, there are child labor laws that apply to child actors in movies and prime-time TV shows that don't apply here -- because, presumably, [the kids are] not actors."
McCall called on television networks to do more to protect children on TV.
"I really wish there were somebody sitting at the network who would say, 'What are we doing? Certainly we want people to watch our network, but are there no other avenues to take?'" he said.
Even Larimer County, Colo., Sheriff Jim Alderden had two cents to add on the state of reality television, in an aside to today's news conference.
"Half of the garbage that's on television I can't believe that people watch anyway," he said at a Sunday news conference. "That's your peoples' business."