Are Reality Shows Safe For Kids?

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It's been a tough year for some kids on reality shows.

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From Here Comes Honey Boo Boo to Friday Night Tykes to the kids of Real Housewives with parents getting divorced or going to jail, it could be hard to understand why a parent would want to broadcast their child’s development for all the world to see -- even if they’re able to pay for college down the road with talent fees.

Child advocates who we spoke to said that there aren't enough regulations, especially for shows shot outside California, to protect kids from being overworked and exploited. Unlike the push for a "no kids" policy in paparazzi photos -- which was supported by Kristen Bell and other celebrity parents -- there’s been no coordinated campaign focused on kids on reality shows.

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None of the producers, child advocates or former reality show stars ETonline spoke to for this story favored an outright ban on casting children on reality shows -- or thinks such a thing is even possible. However, they generally agreed on the need for stronger legislation protecting kids on unscripted series, and better enforcement of existing law, where it exists. As it stands now, one advocate claimed, in some locations animals on set get better protections than children do.

"The American public is the biggest problem," said Jon Gosselin, a reality star who found fame with his wife and kids on TLC’s Jon & Kate Plus 8. "They want to see reality shows."

For four seasons, the eponymous TLC reality show Here Comes Honey Boo Boo served up the antics and sassy remarks of veteran child beauty pageant contestant Alana "Honey Boo Boo" Thompson. Last year the show was swiftly canceled after reports that its matriarch, June "Mama June" Shannon, allegedly started dating an old flame, convicted child molester Mark McDaniel. Then Shannon’s eldest daughter, Anna "Chickadee" Cardwell, told ET that McDaniel had abused her when she was 8 years old. (Shannon denied renewing the relationship with McDaniel.)

On the show, Mama June was often shown plying Boo Boo with "Go Go Juice" -- a crude concoction of Red Bull and Mountain Dew -- and other junk food, including a special pre-pageant competition treat of 15 packs of Pixie Sticks.

Now aged 9, Alana Thompson weighs 125 pounds, which she blamed primarily on steroid treatments for asthma. "We don’t eat cheeseballs," Shannon insisted to ET. "We don’t eat snack cakes. Production used to bring that in." Now Mama June is pitching a new idea: Honey Boo Boo gets healthy.

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Gosselin now advocates for stronger laws protecting the rights and welfare of children on reality shows. "Why is NASCAR one of the most watched sports in America? They’re looking for the wreck. If people didn’t want to see reality shows with kids, there wouldn’t be a market for it."

Spectacular personality clashes are standard fare for reality shows, to such a degree that they frequently spill over from the set to the courtroom.

Take reality star Bethenny Frankel, who leveraged a role on Bravo's The Real Housewives of New York City into a spin-off (Bethenny Ever After), a short-lived daytime talk show and her Skinnygirl Cocktails line. She fought a very public, ferocious legal battle with her ex-husband, Jason Hoppy, over their 4-year-old daughter, Bryn -- and Hoppy argued that Bryn would be better off far away from mom’s camera-saturated lifestyle.

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Tamra Judge and her ex, Simon Barney, have also fought over their kids appearing on the show post-divorce. Beverly Hills’ Brandi Glanville and her ex, Eddie Cibrian, often swapped snipes about custody arrangements on their respective reality shows. (Cibrian’s VH1 series with new wife LeAnn Rimes, LeAnn and Eddie, was canceled in 2014.) And after New Jersey’s Teresa Giudice went to prison in January, her 13-year-old daughter, Gia, gave interviews in which she discussed her mother’s sentencing while promoting her own musical group.

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Some celebs who have survived adolescence or young adulthood in the public eye have strong feelings about passing that legacy on to their kids. "I just want my kids to try and grow up as normal as possible," Jersey Shore alum Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi told ETonline as MTV wrapped production on her second show. "I don’t want them to get used to having a camera in their face."

Tori Spelling, who appeared on the teen drama Beverly Hills: 90210 at age 17, insists her four children -- ages 2 to 7 -- "always come first," even when her Lifetime reality show True Tori chronicled Spelling’s discovery that her husband, Dean McDermott, was cheating on her. Spelling told ETonline, "If at any point the kids say, 'I don’t want to do that anymore, I don’t want to be on camera,' it all goes away."

Child labor laws vary greatly from state to state, and there are no federal laws that protect kids on reality productions. (Sen. Dick Durbin of Illinois recently advocated for Esquire Network to cancel its youth football series Friday Night Tykes, calling it a "shameful, dangerous display" that "directly endangers the health of children.")

"California by far has the strongest laws," said Paul Petersen, chairman emeritus of A Minor Consideration, an organization that provides support to child stars via advocating legislation and family education, and who himself was a Mouseketeer on the The Mickey Mouse Club when he was 10. "But [some states] actually use the absence of child labor laws as a production lure."

In California, there are clear limits on the number of hours worked, educational requirements, and a requirement that 15 percent of a child’s gross earnings must be put into a trust. (New York, Louisiana and New Mexico have similar requirements for talent fees to be set aside.) Producers on California sets with working children are required to hire studio teachers -- a state-licensed professional responsible for the safety, welfare and education of minors.

"Children are treated as props," said Julie Stevens, a studio teacher and owner of Double 19 Productions, a production company that manages children. "Nobody is looking out for them except for the studio teacher." And, she says, "It’s up to the studio teacher to intervene if there’s a problem."

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But their influence can be limited. "The studio teacher has no teeth to enforce the law," said Linda Stone, a studio teacher who has over 30 years of experience. "I can call the DLSE [Division of Labor Standards Enforcement], but I don’t hear back because they’re so busy. So it’s up to me to call production companies and to try and intimidate them. Usually that works."

California Labor Commissioner Julie Su said the DLSE is responsive. "Studio teachers can and do report violations to any of our offices," she said. "We have a goal of a 24-hour response time to child labor violations on set, especially if it is a complaint of a hazard or moral issue,"

But Stevens said that without a consistent enforcement mechanism, it's risky for studio teachers to speak up. "I’ve been fired by a producer who did not have the right to do that, just because I was doing my job," she said.

Still, California’s laws are the gold standard, and other states are playing catch up -- some with more success than others. Pennsylvania’s State Rep. Tom Murt, who worked to pass a 2013 law there that adds some protections to child actors, told ETonline that he became an advocate that because of local productions such as Jon & Kate Plus 8 and Dance Moms. He plans to propose an amendment requiring special representatives on set, and is also making a push for set teachers.

Though protecting children would seem politically expedient, he said his efforts cost him political capital. "As soon as they got wind that we were going down this road, entertainment industry lobbyists got involved," said Rep. Murt. "They said that if these laws are too strict we’d drive productions out of Pennsylvania. We’re willing to work with them, but without child labor laws, kids could be filmed 24/7. A child’s innocence would be auctioned off to the highest bidder."

Gosselin asked ET, "How do we know that networks and production companies aren't going to different states and looking at their state laws and going, 'This is a free-for-all state, we can do anything we want there.'"

Stone echoed that concern. "I’ve been called to work in Tennessee and I’ll ask why, and they say, 'Because we can get Tennessee kids who can work till 2, 3 or 4 in the morning.' I’ll ask them if they would want their own kids to do that, and they’ll say no, but they’ll say, 'I don’t want my kids in the business.'"

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Entertainers in Tennessee are exempt from the state's child labor laws, and when asked about the possibility of kids filming late at night, the state's Labor Standards Unit confirmed that Tennessee does not regulate minors on reality shows. But the state does require a court to approve their contracts.

Petersen, the child advocate, contrasted regulations around children in reality shows and animals on sets. "There’s a [disclaimer] from the American Humane Association at the end of movies that says, 'No animals were harmed.' We need one of those for children, too. Spiders get more protections than kids."

To earn that American Humane Association seal of approval, productions must adhere to a very strict list of guidelines -- including an on-set safety rep -- that the organization’s chief veterinary officer, Dr. Kwane Stewart, said were stricter than any local, state or federal regulations. But there’s no equivalent organization holding out the carrot of approval for treatment of kids.

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One producer ETonline spoke to -- who requested anonymity because of fear of retribution from professional colleagues -- said that the use of animal training techniques on children was in fact a common topic of conversation among show crews.

"You do what you can to get children in a good mood," the producer said. "Sometimes that’s giving them toys. Sometimes that’s candy." One common trick, the producer said, was to literally dangle sweet treats in front of kids until they delivered the perfect quote. "It’s like teaching a dog tricks," the producer said.

But it’s not a bleak picture for every child reality star. Though Lifetime's Dance Moms is volatile -- it’s a dance competition show that often ends in tears, shouts and thrown chairs -- one of the most well-known alums still praises main mom and dance studio owner Abby Lee Miller. “I can’t even believe I’m doing all this stuff now,” said 12-year-old Maddie Ziegler, who recently appeared in Sia’s music video and in live performances on the GRAMMYs and Saturday Night Live. “Sia found out about me because of Dance Moms.”

“I think the biggest misconception of the show is that I’m just this dance teacher from Pittsburgh that screams at these kids,” Miller told ET. “Not true. I have an entire wall of headshots of dancers that are working professionally, and that’s what I set out to do -- to create employable, working dancers.”

Though 13-year-old Paige Hyland, one of the show's other young stars, made headlines when she and her mother sued Miller for a range of claims, including name calling, illegal work hours and the fear of physical violence, a judge threw out that lawsuit. (A criminal case against Paige’s mother, Kelly Hyland, alleging that Kelly assaulted Miller, is still pending.)

If parents are on board, a reality show contract could net a college or trust fund to be used by the children later. "Eighty percent of the gross of the show, including endorsements, went into the children’s trust funds for four years," Gosselin said. "It wasn’t required. We did that for our children. Their school, through college, is paid for. That’s over a couple million dollars." He and Kate, he added, lived off the other 20 percent. "We didn’t live a highfalutin life."

Gosselin said as his family’s show became more popular, and he had more clout, he was able to push back at TLC. "[Producers] would be like, 'Oh, can you walk through the doorway one more time in 2 degree weather?' And I call the network [and say], you need to fire this producer. And they would."

But it can be hard for even well-intentioned parents to stand up and insist better treatment. "Parents let production companies and networks supersede what they think is best for their children," said Gosselin. "The networks say, 'It would be more interesting if your kids did this.' Or, 'Your ratings will go up if you get them to do that.' They pressure you to ignore the welfare of your own children."

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For children working on reality shows today, advocates maintain state-by-state protections are inconsistent and entirely insufficient. "The guys in Washington are not making this a priority," said Rep. Murt. "They’re just not doing it." Rep. Murt plans to reach out to federal legislators directly to spur action. "It’s not necessary to totally ban children from reality TV, but we must do a better job protecting children who work in the entertainment industry."

Though Honey Boo Boo is off TLC, mother and daughter say they have put last year behind them and would be willing to sign on for another show documenting their lives.

"I’m open to doing it again," Honey Boo Boo told ET, as long as the production schedule was less constant. "I couldn’t do what we were doing," she said. "That’s just not something to do for a 9-year-old."

"We’ve had an amazing adventure in the kids’ life in the past three years," Mama June told ET. "If we never get back on TV again, I’ll say thank you."

Gosselin still wrestles with the role he played. "You’re producing good television off the backs of your children. You have to still be a parent and protect them -- because who else is going to protect them if your state doesn’t have any laws?"

And, he cautioned, it was likely too soon to let himself or other parents off the hook. "We don’t know what the potential dangers are yet -- our kids are still kids. We don’t know the potential effects of reality television on them until they can actually conceptually grasp what they lived through. That’s something I didn’t think about when I signed the contract. I just filmed."

Additional reporting by Leanne Aguilera and Denny Directo.