Exploiting Kids On and Off Stage: Labor and Fiction

I often think about important ways in which the children who become star singers or become star actors or actresses in various television or film productions are exploited–exploited by their families, agents, colleagues, and audiences. Kids in such positions receive far too little critical academic attention. 

The Kids Who Work

Historically, child labor has not existed. For most of history, there was no such concept. In the United States, as the industrialism of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era spread, public education spread and child labor decreased. For non-Whites, child labor on farms often continued until the World War II era. While what we now call child labor has been basically nonexistent–in the United States–for a few decades, hundreds of children have been involuntary pushed into the world of entertainment–work and capitalism as children. This is especially problematic when we look at, say, the Olsen Twins, who became laborers as babies.  

Have you ever taken pause to recognize that the child(ren) in your favorite movies or television shows are working? And that they are too young to consent? And that they are too young to understand the implications of capitalism? (And who gets all of that money?) And that they are often abandoned by their managers when they become adults? 

Consider the example of Billy Gilman. He achieved fame as a singer and had several record deals as a young child. According to his statements, once he reached puberty and his voice changed, record labels were no longer interested in him. He is still a talented singer. He even entered The Voice competition in an effort to re-enter the industry. 

Concerns grow further when recognizing how many people who achieve fame as children encounter problems with drugs and alcohol. 

The Kids Who Work – For Free 

I want to also make one separate–and small–point. I watched PBS’s documentary Generation Like a few nights ago. Really interesting, really important presentation of how children use social media. The only problem I have with it is that it focuses only on wealthy (mostly White) children and generalizes their experiences to all children.

One of the points its writers make is that the entertainment industry has tricked everyday children into working for them for free. They do this by encouraging children to “like” and “tweet” and use other social media platforms to advertise content that generates millions for advertisers and producers.

These children are also exploited. They don’t know they are working, they (generally) don’t understand how social media uses and creates them, and they don’t understand the long-term consequences of their online activity. 

The Kids Who Do Not Exist 

In addition to film and television characters having a very limited existence (as I wrote about here), such characters actually do not even exist, as I wrote about at-length in my dissertation. This is especially important when considering children. 


Do you remember that first moment between Mae Mobley and Aibileen in The Help (2011) where viewers are supposed to be touched by the loving bond between them? 

You is kind. You is smart. You is important.

Well, that moment never actually happened. Sort of. 

Both Mae Mobley and Aibileen are fictional. They were created by writers. The words the bodies of Viola Davis (Aibileen) and Eleanor Henry/Emma Henry (Mae Mobley) speak were written by someone else.

This is especially important when thinking about children. Not only are they involuntarily forced to labor, they are involuntarily forced to create characters. In the process of creating these characters, children do and say things as required by others.

Adults often forget this or do not think about this, but other children–the children who see other children on-screen–don’t know they are seeing children who do not actually exist. Children–even babies–in film are often more adult-like because adults create those characters.

In another example, in the television show This Is Us there is also a moment where viewers are supposed to be especially touched. In a nutshell: Man passes away and leaves orders that his two granddaughters (teenagers) alone are supposed to plan his funeral. And they plan this beautiful service. Such occurrences are only possible in fiction, fiction where adults create children. 

From Here?

What can we do? Should we just not have children in media? That might be extreme. I do not know.

And to be clear, I’m not as concerned about local theatre productions or school productions that use children. I myself was an “actor” in a few programs in first and second grade at school!

Dr. Andrew Joseph Pegoda

Categories: Thoughts and Perspectives

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15 replies

  1. Made me think! I never “worried” or gave much thought to children actors, but just think about the exploration of children like the fat little outspoken redneck girl, Honey Boo Boo or whatever her name was. She was a TV phenomenon, and she was ridiculed and laughed at. I wonder where she is today?

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  2. So glad that finally someone mentioned this point! I think there should be some laws or regulation to protect the children in the media. Especially, when I see some horror movie or some movies have child abuse scenes, like Split. I am so afraid these scenes could have some negative impact on the little actors or actresses’s future. The filming process should be regulated, making sure the process will not have some negative impacts on them.

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  3. As someone that watches a lot of movies, especially horror ones, its always something thats been in the back of my mind. Personally I think depending on the media, children should be on it, but otherwise some type of regulation should be done to ensure ethics.

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  4. This article makes so much because I also had times when I thought about kids who are being used by their parents even on social media like Instagram to gain some “fame.” However, I never thought about it to this extreme. I also believe that some parents are doing this to help their kids in the future. If your lucky, you will probably be famous for a lifetime.

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  5. Another thing that the media fails to mention is how being “famous” is often times pushes certain mindsets and expectations on children that are wildly inappropriate, such as Millie Bobby Brown from the show Stranger Things. She was recently named sexiest woman in Hollywood! She’s still child and is being objectified as a woman already. The American mindset just has to change.

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  6. Super interesting stuff. When I saw IT last month I remember thinking how psychologically resilient the kid who played Georgie must be to take on such a demanding and emotionally scarring role, and I have thought about the potential negative effects a role like that might have on a child. I discussed with friends how and why the parents let their kids be exposed to roles like that but never thought of it as children being forced to do things required by other people. That Mae Mobley scene is idolized by millions and thinking of it this way gives me a different perspective on popular culture and its twists on history.

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  7. I never really gave thought to children in movies until now. At first I thought that these children were having fun while getting paid but now I see how I was wrong. Come to think about it, there are way too many children who are TV/ movie stars who end up messing up their lives because they do not know how to handle the fame and fortune. A good example of this would be Macaulay Culkin from home alone, he was an innocent little kid who became a drug addict in his adult life.

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  8. I had never looked at it this way! But after reading your blog I definitely consider taking the perspective where all of this is bad! Not having children in the media industry would be extreme; some actually benefit from it as they grow up (probably a small portion of them). I’ve seen mothers treating their very young daughters as dolls applying on their faces all these artificial products to make a couple gran or use them for the own profit on social media. There should be regulations when it comes to children. Not only are the parents profiting from but I am also sure that the children’s education is being put at risk as they are exhausted from all the work they have to do other than school.

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  9. I strongly agree with you. I feel that not enough people speak about this and it should have some laws that protect the children. Many actors that start off as actors since children don’t have the chance to experience a real childhood. My brother has started playing soccer since a child and has started a reputation in the soccer league and all he breathes, eats and thinks is soccer. My parents think that its okay to support him in his life goals but there’s a certain time where they should just let him be a kid. It becomes more of a job rather than a hobby.

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  10. I think children should be mainly kept out of the media. Once children get consumed by and exposed to the media, they can become really popular and gain a lot of “clout”, if you will. Children are lead by their parents. But once the children get older, they may realize that they didn’t actually want that type of life.

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  11. I agree something should be done to protect the children a little more. The problem lies, how to go about doing that? I have always said children being in the media at such a young age ruins them in the long run and it should be avoided. But, what would TV be like without kid at all..? I cant imagine it. This article really makes you think. Interesting.

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  12. Growing up famous can really put a toll on you as a person and the actions you do. The new digital age of social media show anything you want to post online and makes perspectives about who you are as a person. With all the attention growing up for young child stars and mentally take a toll as they grow up. With all the money and fame they look at what other rich people do to have fun and often times copy it when later regretting it when they grow up.

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  13. I can’t say that I have never thought about the impact the entertainment industry puts on children. For example, it is no secret that some Disney Channel stars end up on drugs, or in the spotlight for criminal behavior. Children are having to work before hitting puberty, and although it is wrong I don’t think there is any way to stop it. I think children need to have more rights, and laws that protect their mental health as well as the income they generate so they do not get taken advantage of or exploited. Sometimes it’s their own parents that exploit them so I feel they need an actual agency that protects their rights when working in the industry.

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  14. As few others have said, I never thought about the concept of child labor being applied to those involved in the entertainment industry. While watching “Full House” or “The Fresh Prince of Belaire” when I was younger, I thought those kids wanted to be there and on the other side of the screen that was a dream for me. It definitely faded away because of reality, but I understand that those kids were WORKING. That was not just fun and games because parents probably pushed their kid to do acting because it’s another source of revenue.

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