Culture

We Really Need To Stop Bashing Child Stars

By Keelia Clarkson··  7 min read
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We Really Need To Stop Bashing Child Stars

The child stars countless Millennials and Gen Zers grew up knowing and looking up to are now coming forward with traumatic tales.

I don’t know a single person my age who didn't grow up without watching Disney Channel and Nickelodeon shows. From The Mickey Mouse Club to Lizzie McGuire to iCarly to Hannah Montana, millions of young children and tweens would tune in night after night, looking up to these characters and the children who portrayed them, and wishing we too could have our own TV show.

I don’t think I was alone in having been jealous of these child performers’ lives, assuming they must feel incredibly special, meaningful, and fulfilled. After all, they were getting paid enormous amounts of money to play pretend, be adored by countless fans, and bypass sitting in bleak classrooms for eight hours a day. At least, that’s what it seemed like from my hidden, ordinary corner of the world.

Former Child Stars Reveal Childhood Trauma

But as we’ve grown up, alongside these child actors whose young faces we knew so well, it’s now coming to light that their lives weren’t all glamour and adventure. Instead, we’re now hearing from former child stars like Jennette McCurdy and Alyson Stoner that achieving stardom during childhood isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

Achieving stardom during childhood isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

In fact, Nickelodeon’s alleged history of sexually abusing their child performers is something of a hot topic right now. From Amanda Bynes’ claims of a “father figure” having sexually abused her to Dan Schneider’s apparent foot fetish and the sexualization of his young actresses, it’s clear that Nickelodeon’s environment wasn’t as kid-friendly as its shows. (Disney’s track record isn’t as white as snow either.)

And most recently, former child actress Alyson Stoner has stepped forward to tell her heartbreaking story, fraught with mental health issues, sexual harassment, and child labor law violations — shining a light on the toxic inner workings of the entertainment industry’s treatment of its young.

In her op-ed, Stoner outlines a scene from her early childhood:

"At 6 years old, I enter a sterile white room where a stranger stands apathetically behind a camcorder on a tripod. On cue, I perform the scene. This morning, I'm being kidnapped and raped.

Ending in the fetal position under a chair with my body frozen in fear, I stand up, wipe my tears and thank the stranger for the opportunity. I walk to the car ruminating over my performance, comparing my screams to the other kids' I heard from the waiting room.

As with many parents in this unusual situation, my mother is not versed in how to help me regulate my nervous system. I remain catatonic on the first half of the drive, until I remember we're en route to a second audition for a princess toy ad. On the spot, I manually alter my mood, personality and outfit so I can win over a new stranger with a camcorder. I need to outperform 900 other candidates. Suddenly, I'm 'Smiling Girl #437'."

Not exactly something we would probably wish on our own daughters. So while some may see their claims of trauma, harassment, and exhaustion as simply the flipside of the benefits of fame, their situations are far too nuanced to simply say, poor little rich girl.

Nothing about Their Life Has Been Normal

When we normal folk look at someone who has everything we think we want — money, influence, adoration, purpose — it’s easy to suspect everything about their life is painless, intriguing, and alluring. We tend to regard our normalcy as mundane and unimportant. But what if being normal was all these kids ever wanted?

It’s fundamental to our growth and wellbeing that we have the opportunity to just be normal kids. 

We wouldn’t assume that being ordinary is something one would wish for — it’s boring, right? However, as children, we need normalcy. It’s fundamental to our growth and wellbeing that we’re given the opportunity to just be normal kids. To have park playdates. To be kept safe and wide-eyed. To not have a worry in the world.

Stoner describes her life at 12 as being a machine: "I'm currently contractually obligated to complete multiple overlapping projects. I'm President of a corporation with salaried family members and multi-vertical teams. Revenue models for billion dollar media empires revolve around my peers' and my faces, talents and labor." Children who were abused or faced other hardships tend to struggle as adults with feeling like the innocence of their childhood was stolen from them, and similarly, child stars weren’t given the gift of childhood. While we often think all that is usual is expendable, it’s truly not — it’s a necessity.

They Struggle with Trauma Every Day

Trauma is a hot topic today, and rightfully so. Generations before us often ignored their mental health and emotional wellbeing, but with therapy and having honest discussions about mental health becoming more normalized, it’s getting easier to speak up about the pain we’ve endured — something not one of us escapes in this life.

It’s lamentably common for child stars to come forward with allegations of harassment and abuse.

While many of us are able to connect over similar trauma, child performers have such a unique kind of trauma that they’re left without many people who understand it firsthand. None of us will ever understand the pressure to be the breadwinner of our family at such a young age, being thrown into the spotlight in the midst of our most formative years, or having to act as a role model to millions of other kids before we were mature enough for that responsibility. 

Along with that, it’s lamentably common for child stars to come forward with allegations of harassment, abuse, being overworked, and tales of eating disorders and substance abuse to cope with stress and anxiety.

They Didn’t Have the Privacy We Did

Imagine being a young teenager again: dealing with acne, raging hormones, a body changing in ways that make us uncomfortable, endless insecurities, the intricacies of self-discovery, making mistakes we’d regret one day, finding out who our true friends are, being faced with more and more responsibility with every passing year. Now, imagine doing all of that while the entire world is watching and production companies rely on you to represent them.

Child stars endure our most awkward stage as humans with an audience of millions. 

The truth is that we all deserve grace, freedom, and privacy as we grow up and mature. But child actors aren’t given that. Instead, they’re forced to endure what is arguably our most awkward, complicated stage as humans with an audience of millions — leading them to hide their pain and to never stop performing. We never stop to think of how lucky we are to have the freedom to make mistakes, go through heartache, and mature without the worry of it ruining our image.

Closing Thoughts

Growing up in the entertainment industry can seem oh so glamorous and enchanting, but ultimately, it doesn’t come without drawbacks, and there’s a lot more that goes on behind closed doors than is comfortable to admit. Still, it’s important that former child stars continue to share their stories.

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