Reality TV Kids and the 'Long-Term Damage' They Face
At age 8, Asia Monet Ray has many things that the rest of us do not: undeniable talent as a budding dancer. A Twitter following of more than 55,000 fans. Her own YouTube channel.
And her own reality show, Raising Asia, debuting Tuesday at 10 p.m. on Lifetime.
But as blessed as this child is, she doesn't have her own phone. Or a dog. And she wants both.
"Not faaaaiiiir," she says airily over a conference call with her mom, publicists, and a reporter. "Hey, can I ask you a question? Do you have a dog?"
Can you blame a moppet for trying? In Asia's case, she lobbies with the breezy charm and confidence of a born performer, precisely the kind of temperament that you'd think would thrive in front of a camera. But mom Kristie Ray still worries — about how the show will portray her daughter, about how best to keep Asia's private life protected in the midst of a circle of cameras.
See Asia on Dance Moms:
"She walks outside and we have to be on all the time," Kristie says. "When the cameras are on, you can't keep everything private, and you have to accept that. But it's very hard. We'll just have to see how it looks when the show airs."
Experts say Kristie is wise to sweat such details. In allowing their daughter to venture further into the reality realm, the Rays
follow parents ranging from Kate Gosselin to Hulk Hogan to Kris Jenner to Sharon Osbourne to June Shannon, mother of breakout reality star Alana "Honey Boo Boo" Thompson.
Some of those kids have turned out fine. But many have suffered brutal forms of public disintegration: addiction, arrests, trips to psych wards, or simply acting out in unhealthy ways — all meticulously documented worldwide via blogs and social media.
The result, experts fear: a growing generation of young people uniquely unprepared to function in the real world. Child development specialists say that reality kids could be even more at risk than child actors, who face their own struggles with the spotlight but at least reach adulthood armed with a craft and a decent sense of what's a private space and what isn't.
"A child on reality TV has no privacy whatsoever — no chance to really react and work through something in a way that's private," says Barbara Neitlich, a child psychotherapist who has assessed contestants for reality TV. "Child actors go through that as well, but this is a different level of exposure.
"A reality child gets famous for, say, saying something ridiculous and is swept up into the spotlight. They could have been the next cancer doctor instead, but now they're famous before they get a chance to develop and decide what they should be famous for."
Plus: no on-set counselors. No Coogan-style trust funds in many states. In fact, 18 states have no laws at all to protect child performers of any kind.
The results can be heartbreaking to witness.
A battle with painkiller addiction sent then-17-year-old reality alum Jack Osbourne into a child psychiatric ward — a dependence that his sister Kelly also fought before the two eventually got clean.
Also at 17, Nick Hogan, who appeared on two reality shows — one revolving around his famous wrestler dad, Hulk — did five months in jail stemming from a car crash that's expected to leave his passenger requiring full-time care for the rest of his life.
Parents who participated in the reality show Supernanny have complained that "they left us with children that were more naughty than when they arrived."
Still other reality children just seem to be miserable, stressed, or, at the very least, in need of a sit-down with a person of reason.
Thompson reportedly hit her mother in front of late-night TV host Jimmy Fallon. Less than a month ago, a 16-year-old Kylie Jenner flashed down-to-there cleavage on Instagram — and not for the first time.
And on a recent episode of Today, Gosselin trotted out her oldest daughters, 13-year-old twins Mady and Cara, to assure the public that her family is doing fine. But when interviewer Savannah Guthrie asked about that very topic, the two teens responded with silence.
"It's your chance ... spit it out," Gosselin snapped. "This is the most wordless I've heard them all morning. ... I don't want to speak for them, but, Mady, go ahead. Sort of the things that you said in [People] magazine, that years later they're good, they're fine. Go for it, it's your chance."
"No," Mady replied, smiling. "You just said it."
Watch the exchange:
Paul Petersen, a former child star himself, saw something disturbing in that exchange.
"That was the most frightening example of the damage being done to these kids," says Petersen, who runs a support group for child performers called A Minor Consideration. "They were incoherent. They couldn't say what they really felt. They'd been turned into these performing seals, and not for their own benefit.
"If they had at least been child actors, they would have a support group of similar kids. I think this is doing tremendous long-term damage — the kind of damage that you really don't see until 10 years later."
And yet, more and more parents seem to be fine with putting their kids on reality TV: ABC is currently airing the second season of Bet on Your Baby, a reality show in which parents try to predict the behavior of their toddlers. The industry publication Backstage is running casting notices seeking young teens for reality shows about wannabe rock stars or actors. Another notice is trolling for kids as young as 3.
Of course, there's always the chance that the handwringing will turn out to be overblown. At least Asia Monet Ray's chances seem better than most. She clearly loves interviews and lives to perform. A Coogan account is keeping her reality pay in trust.
Before her first reality appearance, on Abby's Ultimate Dance Competition in 2012, she was assessed by a psychologist who was impressed by her maturity level and her ability to handle stress. Most of the time, Kristie can discipline her daughter without lifting a finger.
"She shows me the eye, and then I kinda know," Asia says. "And if I get carried away, she takes all my stuff away."
And the hotter the criticism from coaches or peers, the more Asia seems to thrive.
"It gives me more power to do what I love doing," she says.