Abby Sunderland: Cashing in on Kids for Fame

When parents put children in harm's way to get television and movie deals.

June 14, 2010, 4:13 PM

June 15, 2010— -- Reality check: After nearly losing their 16-year-old daughter Abby to rough seas on a solo sail around the world, did Laurence and Marianne Sunderland try to cash in with a television reality show, "Adventures in Sunderland"?

Abby's trip ended last week when raging weather downed the mast on her boat, Wild Eyes, in the Indian Ocean.

For two days, she was out of communication with her parents and technical team, and the world feared she was dead. Abby was eventually rescued by a French boat at an estimated cost of $30,000.

It was bad enough when the Americans watched Richard Heene stage the flight of a runaway balloon, claiming his son Falcon was caught inside. Authorities found the 7-year-old hiding in his garage, apparently on parents' orders, so they could pique interest in a reality show.

People began to get suspicious when the boy's mother and father pressed on unfazed in a morning television interview as little Falcon vomited at their side.

Parents and child experts had the same nauseated reaction to the news that the Sunderlands, a daredevil sailing family, had reportedly begun filming a reality show four months ago at their home in Thousand Oaks, California. The Christian couple has seven children, all home-schooled, and an eighth on the way. Abby's older brother had also previously circumnavigated the globe.

Laurence Sunderland told the Los Angeles Times Monday that he had cut ties with Magnetic Entertainment, the company with which he had planned to do the show, because he was not happy with the direction it was taking.

"There is no show at this time, nor will there be," he told the newspaper. "They were assuming Abigail was going to die out there. They were relying on her dying, and so we cut the ties."

"What a creepy family," said one blogger on the website Hollywood Gossip. "Perhaps 'Mis-adventures in Sunderland' is more appropriate."

Since reality TV has weaseled its way into heart of America, questions have been raised about the exploitation of children.

Colorado child protective services were called in to investigate the Heene family for faking their son's disappearance to garner public attention.

The Pennsylvania Labor Department also opened an investigation into whether reality couple Jon and Kate Gosselin had complied with state child labor laws in production of their hit show, "Jon & Kate Plus 8," a TLC series about two parents raising twins and sextuplets.

Now, many are wondering if the Sunderlands endangered their daughter for personal gain.

"This is as disturbing as the 'Balloon Boy,'" said Dr. Ari Brown, a pediatrician from Austin, Texas, and author of "Expecting 411."

"What is the motivation here?" she asked. "Is it the child or the parent who is benefitting from this? If the parents are cashing in on the child's talent or experience, you have to wonder if it's a good parenting choice."

"This isn't the first time this has happened," said Brown. "Gypsy Rose Lee was the classic example of a stage-door mom who is pushing the kid."

'Jon & Kate Plus 8' Cash in Too

When the Gosselins brought television cameras into their home, right after the birth of their sextuplets, viewers lived vicariously through the couple's squabbling and eventual divorce. Dad made the tabloids with his latest girlfriends and Mom went on to a lucrative deal with ABC's "Dancing with the Stars."

Brown said that when a child is training for the Olympics or the next Lindsay Lohan is trying out for a movie role, she may be missing out on normal development. Children need to learn social skills, how to share the spotlight and adapt to the real world, she said.

"These kids who make careers out of experiences and talent do so at what cost?" she said. "This girl may be a great sailor, but is it wise to send her across the ocean when she is 16 without any backup? There is a health and safety risk."

The Sunderlands didn't return e-mails or ABC's calls to their home and his yacht management company.

Abby herself has said she sees nothing wrong with taking risks, even though her parents lost track of her for two days when she was alone on the open ocean.

"There are plenty of things people can think of to blame for my situation; my age, the time of year and many more," she wrote on her blog. "The truth is, I was in a storm and you don't sail through the Indian Ocean without getting in at least one storm. It wasn't the time of year it was just a Southern Ocean storm. Storms are part of the deal when you set out to sail around the world."

"As for age, since when does age create gigantic waves and storms?" said Abby, who has now said she is writing a book.

Her father, a sailing instructor who moved from Australia to southern California, denied his daughter's effort, planned since she was 13, was just a stunt. He said the reality show was "the last thing on my mind."

"I love my daughter dearly," Sunderland told the New York Post. "I love the passion of sailing dearly, and this was about Abigail following her dream. She followed the criteria that I had set out, and met all the requirements to embark on this trip."

He said at the time a show or film might encourage "kids to get out there and do things."

Joanne Cantor, a psychologist who studies the effects of media on children and wrote the 2009 book, "Conquer CyberOverload: Get More Done, Boost Your Creativity, and Reduce Stress," said any plans to sell his daughter's story were "outrageous."

"It's amazing, the draw of public attention that people are now seeking," she said.

'America's Funniest Home Videos' Started Trend

That is exactly what happened with ABC's "America's Funniest Home Videos," which launched 21 years ago, highlighting mishaps and accidents, much of the time involving children.

"They were having kids do dangerous things and they had to start saying things like, 'Don't do this,'" said Cantor.

"There is this trend in the media to focus on outrageous things and to exploit them on the one hand and encourage parents to use their children in this way," she said. "It's so bizarre and sick and certainly unhealthy for our society. We need to be able to count on parents to have some sense of the ones who guide their children to safety rather than taking the lead and engaging their children."

Reality television is the modern version of "rubbernecking," according to Cantor, and it isn't healthy. "We automatically look when we see a crash on the highway."

The human brain is "vulnerable" to television that encourages danger and hostility due to so-called mirror neurons in the brain. "Our brains are drawn to certain things, but there are negative consequences for our stress levels on our health."

As for the children who are part of these reality shows, "I can't imagine it's good for them," she said. "Kids need privacy and need to make mistakes without doing them in public. We have lost the ability to have a normal childhood."

Reality shows may run their course, just as other television fads like Westerns and monster shows have withered away.

"There will be a time when people get tired of them," said Cantor.

Meanwhile the Sunderlands are adamant their daughter's adventure wasn't misguided.

In an interview earlier this year with Mom Logic, Marianne Sunderland defended her parenting choices: "I understand that need to protect, but you've got to let go at a certain point."

"Look at your own life," she said. "Think about your kid in the future, when they are in their late 30s or early 40s and have followed someone else's plan their entire time on the planet. They went to school, got a degree, got married, got a house. Maybe they're successful, but they're not really fulfilled. In the long run, they are going to be their own person. I think you have to remember that."

Dr. Gary Smith, director of the Center for Injury Research and Policy at Nationwide Children's Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, agrees it's important that children be challenged, but with a safety net when there is "potential harm."

When are childred ready to spread their wings and fly?

"These are some of the hardest questions we get," he said. "We don't have a good handle on how age is a proxy variable for when they can handle challenges," he said. "And parents have to make those decisions daily."

"Kids try new ideas and tasks and they sometimes fail," he said. "We want them to do it in an environment where we don't have life and death consequences. By definition, they push and fail and that's how they learn. On the playground they reach and jump and if they fall on concrete, there are bad consequences. That's why we keep cushioning."

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