Youngest Reality TV 'Stars' in Danger?

What happens when kids as young as 2 grow up in the reality TV spotlight?


June 11, 2008 — -- The Osbournes came first, followed by the Kardashians, Snoop Dogg, Tori Spelling, Deion Sanders and now, the latest: Denise Richards.

Stars of their own reality TV shows, they have allowed cameras into their homes to document their families' daily lives. But as these shows focus on celebrity families, some are beginning to wonder what impact the spotlight has on the kids.

"I think it can become stressful, overwhelming, force them into situations that are developmentally out of synch," clinical psychologist and Emory University professor Nadine Kaslow said. "When the kids are alone, they end up bullying each other, being sexualized. Some of these kids are going to have certain stigmas for life."

"It's a huge risk," said expert Rabbi Sherre Hirsch, a spiritual life consultant and mother of three who lives in Los Angeles. "It can really trap or stereotype a child into a person they're not. Children change on a dime. They could be perceived in a way that is not authentic to how they are."

Reality shows turned their cameras on the real lives of celebrity families as a form of entertainment after "The Osbournes" -- about heavy metal singer Ozzy Osbourne, his wife Sharon and two of their children, Jack and Kelly -- became a massive hit for MTV in 2002.

One of the Osbourne children, Aimee, refused to participate in the show and even publicly criticized the family for their on-screen antics.

"When the kids are old enough, they do have a say and can make that decision for themselves," said Kimberly Speight Nordyke, a television writer for The Hollywood Reporter.

What about when the children are too young to speak for themselves?

"With younger children, parents are making choices for them that they are not making for themselves," Hirsch said. "I think this is parents seeking fame, not children. As a responsible parent, you don't put your children in a reality show."

Richards has been criticized for doing just that, allowing her two young daughters, ages 4 and 2, to appear on her reality TV show, "Denise Richards -- It's Complicated," which airs on E!

Her ex-husband, Charlie Sheen, went to court to try to block Richards from even doing the show, claiming it would exploit the girls. Richards ultimately won that battle but still had to defend her decision to include the girls to a skeptical public.

"If I have my kids on my show, I'm exploiting them," Richards told Redbook magazine. "If I don't, people will think I'm not a hands-on mom. That's why it's very important to me that the girls are part of it."

Richards told Channel Guide magazine, "People weren't saying [the show is exploitive], my ex-husband was saying it. It's funny, people don't say anything about the Kardashians, they don't say anything about Deion Sanders. ... The Osbournes, Snoop Dogg -- they all have used their families. All of the other families doing reality shows, I haven't read or heard anything about them exploiting their children."

Nordyke believes Richards is getting a lot of flak from people like Whoopi Goldberg on ABC's "The View" because of her high-profile divorce.

"My question would be, does Denise Richards have final say over what airs?" Nordyke asked. "Is she allowed to protect her kids from what people see on-screen?"

Even Hirsch is conflicted after watching a recent episode of the show.

"The children were so not the story," she said. "She didn't even show them playing. They were very much part of the wallpaper. In many ways, Denise Richards is being critiqued for the children being exploited, but from the episode I saw, it wasn't really their story. It's really her story, and frankly, it's kind of boring."

Hirsch is more troubled by the fact that Richards and her husband are in a public disagreement about the girls' involvement on the show.

Tori Spelling, on the other hand, has always made her reality show on Oxygen a family affair, with husband-actor Dean McDermott and their son Liam. The first season of their show, "Tori & Dean: Inn Love," aired one week after Liam was born. In the third season of the show, now called "Tori & Dean: Home Sweet Hollywood," scheduled to launch on June 17, Spelling will hunt for preschools for Liam and prepare for the birth of her second child. (Her daughter Stella Doreen was born on Monday.)

Spelling defended her decision to make her family part of a reality show in a recent interview with

"The best thing for us is that we all get to work together," she said. "So, we get to take our baby to work every day, which is really helpful. I don't know if we would be able to not have help if we both had to go work somewhere else and not be with Liam every day. We know it's a unique situation and we're very lucky."

Hirsch also believes Spelling's situation is unique.

"Tori could argue, 'I was raised in the public eye. It's normal. This is what you do,'" she said. "It probably feels comforting to her. She knows nothing else but being in the public eye. But how much joy did that bring her? Did it really work for her?"

Children have appeared on television almost since its inception. They were a prominent part of shows like "Father Knows Best," "Ozzie and Harriet," and "Leave It To Beaver." But all of those children were actors, playing a role.

"Those kids are not necessarily playing themselves, being seen in their daily lives and habitat," Nordyke said. "There is a difference, because children in reality shows are letting cameras into their private world. That is definitely more revealing than having a child play a character in a sitcom."

"Potentially, it's worse for them to be on a reality show," said Kaslow. "You don't get as much distance from it. You're not in a character. You are a character."

Hirsch said there is a cautionary tale in the troubled lives that many child actors lead after their time in the spotlight ends. However, she knows of no data about the impact on children in reality shows.

But both Hirsch and Zaslow say shows like last year's failed "Kids Nation," in which 40 kids, age 8 to 15, were put in a New Mexico ghost town without their parents and asked to form their own government, is a big no-no for kids. CBS, which aired the series, drew heavy criticism, and the show's producers were under investigation amid reports of children drinking bleach and being burned.

"I wouldn't recommend that you do that in life, forgetting the television show," Zaslow said. "Why in the world are they doing it under those circumstances? I would worry about those shows much more."

Talent competition reality shows are probably the least harmful because they mimic opportunities to compete in real life, experts say.

"You have to honor your kid," Hirsch said. "You can't deny them who they are. But whether they need to (sing or dance) in the public eye is a different issue."

It remains to be seen how children like Richards' or Spellings' will be affected growing up under the camera's glare. But Alan Raymond, who directed the watershed 1973 PBS documentary series, "An American Family," about the Loud family from Santa Barbara, and two subsequent documentaries about the family in 1983 and 2003, knows firsthand the impact such attention can have on children.

Often referred to as the precursor to all reality TV shows, "An American Family" made the Loud children overnight media celebrities.

"Ultimately, that ephemeral fame ended and it had a profound effect on their lives," Raymond said. "The one truly hurt the most was Lance."

The media excoriated Lance -- a 19-year-old gay man who occasionally wore lipstick and dressed in drag in the 1973 series -- for being gay, and Raymond says even The New York Times used his behavior "as some kind of marker of parental failure."

But even after times changed and being gay had less stigma, Lance was "never able to get out from under the labels and descriptions of him that got frozen of him as a 19-year-old kid," Raymond said.

He added that if all the kids had the opportunity to do it over, "in the end, they would probably rather not have done it."

"Parents need to stop and say, 'is this really in my child's best interest?'" Zaslow said. "I think most people will say no, but not everybody."

"Having a sense of the sacred is having a sense of the private," Hirsch said. "When you put children on a reality show, you're possibly risking everything that is sacred to them."