Balloon Boy: Falcon Heene Spotlights the Price of Fame for Reality TV Kids

Experts say thrusting kids into the spotlight can cause damage.

October 18, 2009, 1:45 PM

Oct. 20, 2009 — -- From the Dionne quintuplets in the 1930s to Balloon Boy Falcon Heene, children have been paraded in front of audiences for years.

But the public spectacle caused last week when Falcon Heene's parents led authorities to believe the 6-year-old was adrift in a homemade balloon in the skies over Colorado -- a stunt the local sheriff now alleges was a hoax designed to further the reality television careers of his parents -- has led child experts to question the seemingly prevalent practice of forcing children to live in the spotlight.

Attorney Gloria Allred told "Good Morning America" today that children don't often have the voice to speak up and go against the parents they want to please.

"Why can't the child have a normal childhood without having to perform all the time?" asked Allred, who specializes in women's and children's issues.

But Arkansas pageant mother Mickie Wood said 4-year-old Eden's appearance on the TLC reality show "Toddlers and Tiaras" has led to roles in movies and on television.

She bristled when Allred suggested that her daughter did not have a normal childhood.

"I assure you she has a wonderful childhood," Wood said. "She has classes, she takes gymnastics, she has friends, she goes to school."

Allred pointed to Eden's media appearances in which she's seen putting on lipstick, which she called the "pornification of little girls."

"You really need to think about the long-term cost to your little girl," Allred cautioned Wood, "not just the short-term opportunity."

While Wood admitted that she lives vicariously through her daughter to some degree, she said Eden is in control of her own career and can bow out of the business anytime she wants.

"Anyone who knows Eden -- when she's through with something, she's through with something," she said. "I do understand the risk. But I assure you that my child is involved with everything."

But the Los Angeles attorney said those kinds of decisions are not something that can or should be left up to Eden.

"These are the formative years," she said. "The idea that a little 4-year-old can consent or not consent is unrealistic. Obviously, a little girl wants to please her mommy."

The stress placed on Falcon Heene was obvious the day after the balloon incident, when he threw up during separate interviews on "Good Morning America" and NBC's "Today" show.

While authorities initially believed the Heenes' claims that the balloon launched by accident and that they truly believed Falcon may have been tucked inside, they now are accusing the Heenes of wasting precious law enforcement and government resources to search for a boy the family allegedly hid in the attic.

While Richard Heene's lawyer David Lane told "Good Morning America" Monday that he expected charges either later Monday or today, the Larimer County Sheriff's Office is now saying it could be next week before Heene and his wife, Mayumi Heene, are charged.

Reality Television or Child Abuse?

Reality television has always favored young stars, but the age of stars has seemingly sunk to the single digits on some reality TV shows.

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."

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."

'Wow, Richard Is Using His Children as Pawns'

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

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.

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