The Exploitation of Child Actors

Dhruthi Mahesh

“You’re a child who is working. You have a job. That job is a hard job. Everybody thinks being a child star is glamorous. But when you’re on a show, you are often carrying a whole show and you know that,” says Tia Mowry, co-star of the television show “Sister, Sister.” 

Television series and movies like Home Alone, Jessie, and Bunk’d all feature child actors. Before working, actors under the age of 18 must obtain a work permit from their state’s Labor Department, child actors cannot work over 8 hours a day, and their working conditions must be safe. Though these laws are effective in preventing children from being overworked, it’s often the effects of being on screen that raise ethical concerns about the livelihoods of these children. 

Child actors are often found with “criminal records, drug use, and mental health problems” years after their time on television, according to an article by “ReelRundown,” a website dedicated to reporting news on the entertainment industry. Unfortunately, the entertainment industry does little to accommodate young children to the instability and chaos of the industry, with children having to constantly try to “stay relevant in the public eye” by looking for and “auditioning for the next blockbuster” to keep their fame. This instability and chaotic lifestyle certainly stress adults out, so expecting children to adhere to the unwritten laws of the industry is certainly cruel. 

But for many child stars, the pressure from parents and other family members is more severe than the erratic nature of the industry itself. Since there is no regulation on the distribution of the money a child actor earns, many parents start to view their child as the breadwinner and proceed to overwork them for their own financial benefit. This abuse and neglect by parents is unfortunately common in the industry, with “the parents of Lindsay Lohan” playing “no small part in the subsequent infamous meltdowns of their child,” and with “Drew Barrymore’s childhood … [being] characterized by nothing but abuse and emotional neglect from her family.” 

Along with the abuse from parents and the industry, child actors’ jobs often lack the social aspect that is important for the healthy development of children. Home Alone actor Macaulay Culkin stated that he, “went to high school, which was a good thing because I hadn’t interacted with many people my age, and [he] didn’t really have friends.” Socializing will help children to “foster empathy improve language skills, discover the concepts of sharing and teamwork, [and] grow more confident,” according to an article by Martin-Pitt Partnership for Children, an organization dedicated to ensuring bright futures for children in their community. Child actors like Macaulay Culkin who’ve grown up on television sets don’t often interact with children their age, negatively affecting their ability to socialize and have a normal childhood. 

Child actors have been a key aspect in the development of our favorite childhood shows, but is sacrificing their childhood for our entertainment ethical? Perhaps the answer may be placing more restrictions on how child actors’ money is distributed and ensuring they have a healthy work-life balance without pressure from parents and the industry.

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