Casually spinning through the TV dial, it’s easy to find reality programming featuring the younger set; shows ranging from “Toddlers & Tiaras,” “Dance Moms,” “19 Kids and Counting” and even competition shows like “The X Factor” and “America’s Got Talent” puts kids in the spotlight. But as children become more of a fixture in the reality TV landscape (and, as in “Toddlers” and “Dance,” their presence in the spotlight becomes more squirm-inducing), the question of what impact reality television will have on them into adulthood becomes more pressing. “‘The Truman Show’ anticipated something none of us knew was coming,” says Dr. Ramani Durvasula, professor of psychology at California State University, Los Angeles and licensed clinical psychologist. “It’s not normal for kids to see their lives played out on a public stage. It’s a completely artificial way to live.”
“Were there positives? Definitely…”
Even a few years ago, though, reality television didn’t seem like such a bad way for a family to make some extra income. “When I talked to Kate [Gosselin], she made it clear that this was a great way for her and Jon to document their children’s lives,” says Candi Wingate, owner of Nannies4Hire.com, the company that initially provided nannies to the Gosselins. “It was also a way to provide for their children. If they hadn’t done the show, you have to look at how different their lives would be. Because of the show, they’ve been able to travel, meet new people, and do things they’d have never been able to do otherwise. Hopefully, they have some money put away for college, too. Were there positives? Definitely… Is it going to hurt in the long run? That’s the unknown, and that’s what we won’t know for a while.”
Of course, when “Jon & Kate Plus 8” first aired, situational reality shows featuring kids tended to be different than much of what we see today. While some were arguably exploitative, there was often a focus on self-improvement or education (the short-lived “Brat Camp,” “SuperNanny,” “Nanny 911,” “Wife Swap”) and less of an emphasis on the children as personalities. Even the widely vilified “Kid Nation” and its potential for Lord of the Flies dramatics was less about individual kids and more about the challenges of creating a community without adult supervision. The initial focus of “Jon & Kate Plus 8” seemed, in comparison, far more innocuous; a gentle look at day-to-day life with sextuplets and twins toddling adorably around the house. “When we were working with the show, what happened [on the program] was what happens in any marriage,” says Wingate (she also notes that none of her employees were those rumored to have had affairs with Jon Gosselin). “One time Jon got a cell phone and wanted to spend time playing with it, and Kate wanted him to put it down. Just normal family situations anyone could relate to.”
We all know what happened to Jon and Kate, however, which few could have predicted; overwhelming success, an unpleasant divorce, tabloid stardom and the recent cancelation of the show (to Jon Gosselin’s apparent relief). While it’s difficult to know if the Gosselins’ marital problems were exacerbated by the show or would have happened anyway, some think it’s now possible to see other potential issues beyond overcoming their parents’ split that might face the children.
“These kids were raised on TV, and these kids could be at risk for substance abuse,” says Jennifer Powell-Lunder, author of Teenage As A Second Language: A Parents’ Guide to Becoming Bilingual. “They’re facing a huge sense of loss now that the show is over. Danny Bonaduce has talked about what it felt like to be dropped like a hot potato, but he was an actor. You’re looking at a loss of material goods and the loss of these relationships they had with the crew and the loss of all that attention. Now, they’re likely to have self-esteem issues. They’re not being asked to go back to a normal life. They’re being asked to create a life they know nothing about. That’s going to be very difficult.”
Other experts are concerned, but aren’t convinced that we’ll be seeing “Kate Plus 8 in Rehab.” “I don”t know that I ever think this entirely healthy for a child,” said John Duffy, clinical psychologist and author of The Available Parent. “As far as I”m concerned, the jury remains out on the success of ‘Kate Plus 8’ for the kids, as the show has recently been cancelled… I remain concerned about the long-term well-being of the kids… Kids can be incredibly resilient, but I think the fame game can present a challenging set of strange circumstances for kids. They are, by and large, not allowed peers. The best facet of ‘Kate Plus 8,’ in my mind, is that each child has seven siblings, and they all have shared this experience. They may be able to lean on each other as they mature.”
Still, there are a variety of factors above and beyond the television show that will play a role in the children’s development. “There are a lot of interactive factors,” says Dr. Durvasula. “Their parents, how protected they are from the publicity, plus a child’s temperament has a lot to do with it.”
“It’s all shades of grey…”
Wingate suggests that the Gosselins were committed to protecting their brood when she worked with them, which may be able to minimize some of the impact the show plays on the children — if, of course, the couple has maintained the values. “When you look back, Kate was very protective,” she says. “She didn’t want nannies calling the home and she didn’t want to interview them [face to face]… she was doing whatever it took to protect the kids and make sure people were really there for them and not just to be on a television show.”
Some experts suggest there may even be positives to being on reality TV, at least if potential negatives don’t cancel them out. “I don’t think anything is black or white; it’s all shades of grey,” says Dr. Hilary Levey Friedman, sociologist and writer. “It doesn’t have to be that you do a television show and it’s automatically going to be a terrible outcome. Kids who do reality TV are exposed to different experiences, and maybe they’re exposed to aspects of television production and that later leads to a career.” Levey Friedman thinks it’s simply too soon to predict what might happen to the kids we see on TV today. “The fact is, we simply don’t know what’s going to happen to these kids because the genre is so young. What’s especially new is the permanency of these images. After ‘An American Family’ aired on PBS, you couldn’t see it anywhere. Now, you can watch clips on YouTube. And that’s true of all media; it lives on. Imagine if your college roommate Googles you and sees you being potty trained. That’s true not just for kids on reality TV but for all kids nowadays. We don’t know what the long term effects will be.”
While experts may have conflicting views on the challenges ahead for the Gosselins, they are mostly in consensus on the topic of more sensational shows like “Dance Moms” and “Toddlers & Tiaras.” “The schemas being given to the children featured on these shows — winning above all, rewarding of petulance, poor limit setting, chaotic lifestyles — does not bode well for good self-regulation down the road, and that can have myriad negative consequences including personality pathology, impulsive behaviors, and other psychopathology,” says Durvasula.
Come back to Starr Raving on Tuesday to read part two on why the new trend in reality might be creating a toxic brew of problems for not only the kids on TV — but also the kids who watch them.