Should Child Acting Exist? These Former Child Stars Say It’s Damaging.
When Alexa Nikolas was a 12-year-old child star on Nickelodeon’s “Zoey 101,” she felt uncomfortable around the show’s creator, Dan Schneider.
“My childhood brain was just like, ‘I don’t like being around this person, I don’t feel my best around this person, I don’t feel safe around this person,’” she said. One of her main memories was that Schneider was often on the other side of the curtain during her wardrobe fittings, where she would be dressed in short skirts and clothes she considered overly revealing for her young age.
Nikolas said Schneider would keep Polaroid photos that the wardrobe staff took of her in her outfits. It wasn’t a huge red flag for her at the time. But after moving on from “Zoey 101” and working on the sets of other TV shows, she said, she came to see Schneider’s behavior as an outlier.
“I’ve never [since] seen a creator in the wardrobe fitting,” she said. “Why the hell does he want to keep the Polaroids?”
An adult who worked on the “Zoey 101” set at the same time as Nikolas, and who asked to remain anonymous because they fear career retaliation, said the skirts Nikolas was asked to wear were inappropriate and that it was “creepy” how Schneider, an adult, was hugging and hanging around with child actors on his show.
Nikolas said she doesn’t remember feeling like she could report any discomfort to an adult or to her actors union, SAG-AFTRA, without also feeling like she herself was the problem.
“There was no place to go other than calling SAG,” she said. “When you call SAG, SAG is like ‘OK, shut down set time,’ and then you are kind of exposed for being the problem. It puts you in a situation where you don’t want to call SAG, because then [you think], ‘Everybody is going to hate me, and then they’re also not going to rehire me. And so I guess I just swallow my feelings.’”
That’s a lot of pressure to place on a child, a young person who isn’t close to fully developed and is working in high-stakes, high-pressure situations without much agency. Nikolas said that at the time, she didn’t even have an understanding that harm could come from someone she worked with, rather than the “stranger danger” so many kids are warned about.
She’s part of a new generation of former child stars who are speaking up about the lack of agency they feel they had as working kids, arguing that the current laws can’t actually protect young actors from the mental, emotional and physical stress that comes with working, or from being exploited by parents or other adults in the industry. Such harm can affect them their whole lives.
“Putting a child in front of a commercial camera is a really big deal. It’s not travel soccer,” said Sally Gaglini, a Massachusetts-based entertainment lawyer and author of “Young Performers at Work: Child Star Survival Guide.”
One example of this, Gaglini said, is that because children are minors and cannot give legal consent to work, it’s up to their parents to decide on their behalf if being a working child is right for them — and the nature of entertainment contracts can be binding. In several states, including California and New York, productions have the option of getting employment contracts that involve child actors judicially approved, making them harder for a child to get out of.
“If the child is under the age of 18 and if the court judicially approves of the petition [to work], then that judicial approval will render enforcement of that contract so that a child can’t disaffirm — meaning walk away from it — if she or he changes their mind,” she said.
Companies that hire kids will also typically get parents to sign an agreement to cover costs, including attorney fees, if their child fails or refuses to perform, Gaglini said.
There’s a more fundamental question involved here, too: Is it even possible for children and their guardians to make a fully informed decision about going to work, and what that might mean for the rest of the child’s life?
Gaglini said that before undergoing surgery, for example, patients can ask their doctor about the possible risks and benefits of a procedure. This is known as informed consent. But kids depend on their parents to make the right choice for the child’s capacity for a productive life, and a child can’t know or understand all of the consequences that may come with the decision.
In fact, federal labor law in America sees most jobs as too “oppressive” for minors. If you’re under 16 in America, the federal child labor provisions in the Fair Labor Standards Act ban you from working “oppressive child labor,” which it defines as the employment of children under 16 in most jobs and the employment of children under 18 in hazardous ones.
As a kid under 16, you can’t work in construction, transportation, manufacturing, mining or communication. You can’t weigh or mix baking ingredients or operate a cooking oven. You can’t load goods off a truck, cook over an open flame, repair equipment or operate power-driven tools.
But you can, obviously, work in entertainment.
The FLSA has been amended several times since it passed in 1938, but it still exempts child performers from its age restrictions, and leaves it up to states to regulate the treatment, experiences of and protections surrounding child performers. Seventeen states currently don’t regulate child-actor labor at all.
The so-called “Shirley Temple Act exemption” that permits children to work in entertainment was made during the Great Depression. When the presidential administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt was deciding which kinds of “oppressive labor” children should be banned from performing, little Shirley Temple was a movie star. In 1938, Rep. Charles Paul Kramer, a Democrat from California, introduced the measure on the floor of Congress, calling such children “exceptional” and saying:
The ability to perform in motion pictures requires an intellectual gift and quality, something which is born in the exceptional child. Not only the motion picture industry but the movie-going public would be denied much pleasure and enjoyment if children were barred from the screen. The old and young are delighted with the unassuming appeal of America’s little sweetheart, Shirley Temple.
“Congress would come to determine that child acting did not rise to the level of ‘oppressive child labor’ and that child acting had a ‘positive contribution to the nation’s cultural and economic life’; thereby not arising to the level needed to require federal regulation,” labor attorney Neyza Guzman explained in the Child and Family Law Journal a few years ago.
Child acting was not considered oppressive labor by legislators in the late 1930s. But should it be now, now that we’ve seen the effects of this underage labor that fuels billion-dollar industries? There are child actors who have positive experiences, but is it worth the risk for those who do not? For these child performers, working in the spotlight while young often comes at an incalculable cost to themselves and with the near-total sacrifice of a normal childhood, as child stars from every generation since Temple’s have attested.
I asked Jay Berk, a clinical psychologist who works with young performers and has consulted with the Screen Actors Guild, what sets child acting apart from more “oppressive” forms of child labor. “From my experience, the kid is wanting to be there,” he said. “I’m not sure the kid wanted to be at the meatpacking place.”
But too often, the full picture isn’t known until a child actor is grown up and can tell their side of the story. In her recent bestselling memoir, “I’m Glad My Mom Died,” former child actor Jennette McCurdy of Nickelodeon’s “iCarly” recalled the miserable aspects of working so young, from chugging Gatorade while sick and feverish so she could perform to dealing with a lecherous on-set authority figure she calls “The Creator” ― widely assumed to be Schneider, who was also the creator and showrunner of “iCarly” and a former teen actor himself.
In her memoir, McCurdy wrote that The Creator gave her a massage she did not want, that she was pressured to wear a bikini on “iCarly” because it was what he wanted, and that she was offered $300,000 in “hush money” not to discuss her experiences on the show. (McCurdy, through her publicist, declined to be interviewed.)
McCurdy said she endured it all as a child to please her abusive mother, who’d wanted to be an actor herself. Saying “no” to working never felt like an option. As she recalled in her book, her mother immediately shut down McCurdy’s attempt to quit after a failed audition, and emotionally manipulated McCurdy into continuing to work by insisting that acting was McCurdy’s “favorite thing in the world.” McCurdy found the strength to counter her mother, saying acting made her uncomfortable, only to face what she called her mother’s scary “hysteria”:
Mom’s face looks like she just ate a lemon. It contorts in a way that terrifies me. I know what’s coming next.
“You can’t quit!” she sobs. “This was our chance! This was ouuuuur chaaaaance!”…
“Never mind,” I say loudly so Mom can hear it through her sobs.
Experts say this is an area where the law falls short.
“I think the law does a really good job at imposing regulations on the production companies, saying ‘These are your obligations and if they don’t follow them, there can be hell to pay,’” said David Albert Pierce, a Beverly Hills, California, entertainment lawyer who specializes in advising productions on child labor issues. “But the missing link is what regulations are on the parents just to say ‘You’re going to do this’ in the first place.”
“The law is more reactive than proactive in this regard,” said California-based labor attorney Ryan Stygar, noting that “there is nothing stopping a parent from forcing their child into a quest for stardom.” He pointed out that a parent can be liable for child endangerment if their efforts to push the child into fame become abusive ― but that such accountability only happens after the abuse.
There are few checks and balances on guardians. The parents of Jackie Coogan, who became an early child star thanks to Charlie Chaplin’s “The Kid,” squandered all of his money. As a result, California, Illinois, Louisiana, New Mexico and New York have what are called Coogan laws, requiring parents to set up a trust account in which employers will deposit 15% of a minor’s gross wages so they’re set aside for later.
But even in those five states, Coogan laws can’t keep child performers from being financially exploited by their parents.
“A Coogan trust account only protects 15% of the child performers’ earnings. The parents or guardians can have authority to manage the remaining 85%. This is intended for the welfare of the child, but of course, abuse happens,” Stygar told HuffPost in an email. “The classic example is a parent purchasing an expensive home, because the child needs shelter, but the home is really for the parent. They buy a G-Wagon, because the child needs transportation, but the parent ends up in the driver’s seat. Mismanagement on this scale can get the child into deep financial trouble very quickly.”
Talent agent Tina Randolph Contogenis, who represents former teen stars Christopher Atkins and Todd Bridges as well as current child actors, thinks 15% is “a joke. I think it should be a lot, lot more money,” she said. “Just that would really, really help a lot; it’s going to filter out those parents that are doing it for the money or the fame.”
Randolph Contogenis said that when she is interviewing potential young clients, she keeps an eye out for red flags, such as parents answering for the child when the child is asked a question. But if she declines to work with a family, they may simply find another agent.
Paul Petersen, a former Mouseketeer and child actor on “The Donna Reed Show” in the ’50s and ’60s, founded the child actor advocacy group A Minor Consideration in 1991. He said the reason there aren’t more laws protecting child actors comes down to money.
“Frankly, legislators at the core don’t care about kids, because kids don’t have the money and they don’t vote,” he said.
There are some protections that enforce rules about schooling and limit the hours kids can work, but laws about children’s labor rights in entertainment are inconsistent from state to state ― and that’s among the states that even regulate it. California, the state with the strictest laws, requires studio teachers who instruct young resident performers to double as welfare workers, and to undergo regular renewal examinations on their labor law knowledge; since 2020, child actors in California have been required to undergo sexual harassment training. To oversee child actors who live and work in Georgia, a child labor coordinator only has to pass a background check, watch a video on child labor law and take an online test to become a welfare expert.
In terms of child actors coming out of work with a positive experience, their union places the ultimate caretaking responsibility on parents.
“While SAG-AFTRA does its upmost to protect young performers on the job, it is ultimately the parent or guardian’s responsibility to ensure the young performer is being treated fairly and with respect,” the union states on its website. (Despite multiple requests, SAG-AFTRA did not provide comment or clarification regarding its policies for this story.)
But even the most well-meaning parents do not have the same type of power as a director or a studio executive.
Alyson Stoner, who became famous as a child dancer in Missy Elliott’s “Work It” video and starred in the films “Cheaper by the Dozen” and “Step Up,” has pointed out that it’s not just guardians who can be compromised by their own ambitions. Everyone involved in working with a child can have a financial conflict of interest that can lead to harm in what Stoner calls the “toddler-to-trainwreck pipeline” of the entertainment industry.
“As a child moves through daily industry processes, there are people who are supposed to be looking out for their well-being: guardians, set teachers who also act as welfare workers, Standards and Practices, the union,” Stoner told me in an email. “Yet, in almost every case, none of these people are actually neutral third-parties; their livelihood is intertwined with, affected by, and dependent on the child’s ability to perform and a production’s ability to get the shot on time.”
As Shirley Temple herself put it in her autobiography “Child Star,” by the time she filmed “Kid in Africa,” she had seen so much abuse of children on sets that she “had begun to suspect how powerful and purposeful the people were who ran things on set. Self-interest dominated; compassion was secondary.” The movie was released when Temple was 5.
Nickelodeon, which didn’t respond to repeated requests for comment about Nikolas’ and McCurdy’s allegations, abruptly parted ways with Schneider in 2018. A New York Times report last year revealed that an internal investigation found Schneider was verbally abusive to co-workers, and colleagues told the paper he’d lacked appropriate boundaries with child actors. In an Insider article published in August, writers, actors and crew members accused Schneider of sexual misconduct and said they felt uncomfortable working on his shows due to “sexualized scenes” in his scripts for kids. “I never interacted with actors in any way, texting or otherwise, that should make anyone uncomfortable,” Schneider told the Times.
Kerry Mellin, a costumer who worked for over a decade on Schneider’s productions, including “Zoey 101” and “iCarly,” told HuffPost she never saw Schneider keep a Polaroid of a child or be present during a fitting. She said she was unaware that McCurdy was uncomfortable wearing a bikini. “‘No’ was ‘no’ in our wardrobe room,” Mellin said. “We don’t have an interest in having them wear something they don’t feel good in. You don’t get a good performance out of a kid that is wearing something they hate.”
When I tried to reach Schneider to ask about a number of McCurdy’s and Nikolas’ allegations against him ― including sexually inappropriate misconduct, an unwanted massage, McCurdy being pressured to wear a bikini, the alleged “hush money” offer, his presence in wardrobe fittings and keeping Polaroid photos of child actors ― Schneider’s production company responded by resharing a statement from Russell Hicks, a former president of content and production at Nickelodeon, that they had previously sent to HuffPost in August.
“Dan cared about the kids on his shows even when sometimes their own families unfortunately did not. He was the shoulder they cried on when something happened to them,” Hicks’ statement read in part. “There is a standards and practices group that reads every script and programming executives looking at every episode. Add to that everyday on every set, were the parents and caregivers and their friends watching every single frame of footage and listening to every joke … Every single thing that Dan ever did on any of his shows was carefully scrutinized and approved by executives at Nickelodeon.”
Nikolas said her final straw at the network came when Schneider yelled at her in a meeting as network executives nodded along. (Neither Nickelodeon nor Schneider directly responded to questions about this.) She said she got out of her Nickelodeon contract with the help of her mom, who stuck up for her.
“If I had to endure another three years of that type of environment, I probably would have been a different person than I am now,” Nikolas said. “I’m really lucky that my mom was very strong about pulling me out of there.”
She recently started a movement called Eat Predators to advocate for survivors of sexual abuse. After McCurdy’s book came out in August, Nikolas held a protest at Nickelodeon’s Burbank, California, headquarters to speak out against unsafe working conditions at the company. Since that protest, Nikolas said, she has been contacted by other former child actors sharing their experiences of exploitation on sets.
“I’m not going to stop until I see some type of change,” Nikolas said.
She particularly wants to end the practice of asking child performers to sign nondisclosure agreements. Similar to McCurdy writing that she turned down Nickelodeon’s “hush money,” Nikolas said a lawyer working for Schneider’s production company contacted her in 2019, asking if she would be open to coming to “an agreement” in light of a potential documentary on Schneider. Nikolas said she turned down the offer, too. (Nikolas shared screenshots of text messages corroborating that she was contacted by an attorney, who told me he no longer represents Schneider and would not comment.)
“These NDAs are evil. They’re too broad. I’m lucky I didn’t sign an NDA. Jennette’s lucky she didn’t sign an NDA. Because of that, we’re able to speak about it,” Nikolas said. “If every person was able to talk like Jennette McCurdy when they felt comfortable to, and share their story, we would all have a greater picture of what’s happening and how we can change our work dynamics.”
There is no directive in current child labor laws that mandates psychological counseling for young workers, whose lives and families can be turned upside down by the fact that they’re working. These children can also be put into adult situations, such as role-playing sexual violence, being objectified or being fired, without additional mental health considerations.
“There is definitely a role for the protection of the child’s mental health and well-being on set,” said Berk, the clinical psychologist. “That doesn’t exist yet.”
In a 2021 op-ed published at People.com, Stoner recalled feeling “catatonic” after auditioning for a kidnapping and rape scene when she was just 6 years old.
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.”…
Let’s contextualize this. Developmentally, my perceptions of basic safety, healthy relational attachment, and awareness of my environment are highly impressionable. Cognitively, I’m just beginning to comprehend the difference between the real and the imaginary. And my nervous system is imprinting patterns that will unconsciously dictate my behavior personally, socially and professionally for decades to come.
One immediate solution to improve child actors’ well-being, Stoner wrote, would be to have a “qualified, third-party mental health professional on every set, especially if minors are present.”
Nikolas said that as a teenager, after her work with Nickelodeon, she auditioned for lots of trauma-based roles and roles as a child rape victim on procedural TV shows. She wishes counseling had been available before and after auditions, as well as on the set, to help her psychologically detach and heal.
“The industry was not built on a foundation of human well-being, so we can’t be surprised that human well-being has been overlooked and compromised,” Stoner told me. “However, we have enough research around healthy childhood development to name that industrializing and commodifying a child’s body and talents creates conditions for severely negative consequences.”
There are resources available to child actors and their parents. Looking Ahead, an Entertainment Community Fund program, offers free mental health services for young professional actors ages 9 to 18 to deal with financial and emotional challenges of the business, help them make the transition to adulthood, and be the resource that their studio teacher, agent or parent can’t be.
Chris Smith, the organization’s national director, is a licensed clinical social worker. His conversations with child actors are confidential, but Smith is legally required to report abuse and neglect. He told me that one issue child actors commonly deal with is the need to be happy and “on” all the time, and not knowing how to understand and verbalize their true feelings. With younger performers, how their bodies react can reveal more than what they actually say.
“Oftentimes a lot of kids, especially younger ones, 8-9, won’t really be able to articulate ‘I get really anxious.’ They might just say, ‘I have a stomachache,’” he said. “Our role as counselors is helping kids develop the language, and helping parents understand ‘OK, let’s check in on this’ … If they have those feelings for a few days in a row, then maybe we can have a bigger conversation.”
Smith ideally wants more families, studios and productions to make Looking Ahead one of the first calls they place when a child actor is booked. He noted that studio teachers, who he called the “first line of defense,” are paid by production companies, and are not independent in the way he and his colleagues are. But there is no guideline requiring anyone to book services like Looking Ahead’s.
Berk said that in order to improve conditions for working kids, he would want there to be an informed consent program for children and their parents, where a mental health professional could have regular age-appropriate conversations to educate the child actor on work/life balance and on the choices they do and do not have.
Raquel Lee, who starred in Disney Channel’s “The Proud Family” as a child and now stars in the Disney+ “Proud Family” follow-up, said she was not emotionally equipped to deal with the “scary spiral” she went through at age 13 after being unceremoniously fired from Nickelodeon’s “The Amanda Show.” Lee had poured herself into the characters she created for the sketch show’s first season, she said, and had bonded like family with its cast.
Lee’s mother, Pam Penn, said Lee’s agent informed them of the decision while she and her daughter were in the car. She wishes she’d been given a heads-up and a direct call from the production, so she could have prepared Lee better and “maybe protect her heart a little bit.”
The experience rocked Lee’s self-worth, and opened the door to abuse she said she experienced later in her career as a child actor. “I’m questioning, is it because I’m Black?” she said. “I’m questioning, is it because they don’t like me? I’m questioning, is it because I’m not good anymore? It’s terrible.”
Although hiring and firing is a part of an actor’s life, Lee thinks there’s a more compassionate way to do it for employees who are still just kids. This might include the courtesy of a kind call from someone on set, she said, such as a producer or a showrunner ― “a call from someone who I had just formed a family with to say to me, ‘Hey, Raquel, we just want to let you know this was a hard decision, but we have to move in another direction. We love you, we wish you the best, we know that you’re going to kill it in your future, and we wish you all the success.’”
“Would I have still have been heartbroken? Yes. But would I have questioned my worth so much? Probably not,” Lee said. “We have an obligation to teach as well when we’re dealing with children.” She added: “There’s a way to fire a child… so that we don’t keep having these messed-up people who get hired, work their butt off and then they’re forgotten about.”
Performers going through puberty often face additional psychological struggles when their bodies become objectified on and off the set. Mara Wilson, who started acting at 5 and starred in multiple blockbuster movies in the 1990s, including “Matilda” and “Mrs. Doubtfire,” believes it’s completely inappropriate for adults to talk about child actors’ bodies, from how they’ll be sexy one day to how ugly they are.
“I can guarantee you that almost every child star, every child actor you’ve talked with, has experienced this,” Wilson said.
Wilson herself knows what it’s like. When she was going through puberty, she said, she realized there were grown adults calling her ugly and disgusting, as well as adults who were sexually fetishizing her.
“I kind of felt trapped in my own body and my own life,” she said. “It’s very hard to realize you are a fetish object to some really sick people out there.”
Wilson strongly believes psychological counseling should be provided for child actors.
“I’ve had people who were advocating for me very well, but I know that is not the case for a lot of people,” she said. “I feel like there should be… something along the lines of intimacy coaches that they have on film sets these days to make sure that people aren’t doing anything that they are physically uncomfortable with… Every time I talk to another former child actor about this, they always say, ‘I really wished that I had that.’”
Even in best-case scenarios, there can be a need for counseling; even positive attachments to a character can cause negative feelings of abandonment.
This was recently made clear on the HBO Max series “The Rehearsal,” in which creator Nathan Fielder uses improv to rehearse real-life events for real people.
In one instance, a woman named Angela is deciding whether she wants to have children. To help her, Fielder sets her up in her dream house in Oregon with a series of child actors, from babies to teens, to live and role-play as her children during her weeks-long “rehearsal” as a mom. Eventually Fielder joins the rehearsal, too, and has the child actors call him “Daddy” and “Dad.”
As a viewer, you can never ignore what it takes to stage this production with underage workers. You watch Fielder get a mother’s consent for lavender oil to be put on her baby’s feet; you watch him call various parents to ask for their consent for him to roleplay their child’s father; you see producers hustle to switch out babies and toddlers because Oregon labor law means they can only work for a few hours each. You watch a large digital clock tick down the minutes remaining that a given child can legally work.
Still, the lines blur between what’s real and what’s pretend. Remy, a young child playing a 6-year-old for Angela’s rehearsal, and who does not have a father involved in his real life, cries on his final day at the thought of the scenario ending.
“I don’t wanna leave,” says Remy, who had told his mom off-set that Fielder, his “pretend Daddy,” loves him. Remy’s mom, Amber, admits she’s not sure Remy understands what acting is.
When Fielder tries to tell Remy that he doesn’t need to call him “Daddy” anymore, because they were playing pretend, Remy insists: “I don’t want you to be ’Athan. I want you to be Daddy.” It is painful to see how long it takes Amber and Fielder to get Remy to finally agree that Fielder is “Nathan,” not “Daddy.”
In a tweet after the show aired, Remy’s grandmother said she was a “little shocked at how it went and of course I bawled my eyes out,” but that Remy is “doing so amazing.” She did not respond to questions about how the family feels now, nor did representatives for Fielder or HBO respond to questions about the show’s child actors.
Remy’s storyline caused an immediate divisive reaction on social media. One writer for a kids’ show wrote that the episode illustrates the feelings of abandonment that child actors often experience after a show ends. Another popular tweet read, in part: “The season finale of the rehearsal just fully convinced me that child actors should be illegal.”
“Maybe we shouldn’t have done that show, huh? It’s like a weird little thing for a little kid to be a part of.”
– Nathan Fielder in the season finale of “The Rehearsal”
I asked Donna Rockwell, a researcher and clinical psychologist who specializes in celebrity mental health, what she would have done if she’d been asked to consult on the show. Rockwell said she would have passed on hiring a child in a family situation like Remy’s, because “he’s playing the part of his actual real-life heartbreak.”
“If you have a longing for a dad and you don’t have one and then you get one, and then you lose one, what happens to the longing? You think it just goes away? It’s still there,” she said, noting that it’s common for child actors to become emotionally connected to, and sometimes dependent on, their adult co-stars on set.
Heather Risinger ― the mother of a seasoned 8-year-old actor who also appeared in the episode and had “the time of his life,” according to Risinger ― said she “actually had more attention and more care and concern from the producers of ‘The Rehearsal’ than I’ve ever had on any other show.” She thinks the backlash against Remy’s family for allowing him to participate was unfair.
“I just know that they were lovely people, she wasn’t a crazy stage mom, and I think they were just trying something new and maybe those shoes didn’t fit. That was more of my perception of it,” Risinger said. “I don’t think there was any ill intention on his mom’s part, on the production’s part. No one was manipulating this dramatic thing with Remy, in my opinion.”
In the final rehearsal of “The Rehearsal,” things get especially trippy. Risinger’s son Liam wears a blond wig to play Remy so Fielder can role-play where he went wrong in hiring the real Remy.
“That man didn’t mean to confuse you, honey, he just didn’t know what he was doing,” Fielder, acting as Remy’s parent, tells Liam acting as Remy. “Maybe we shouldn’t have done that show, huh? It’s like a weird little thing for a little kid to be a part of.”
In “Showbiz Kids,” the 2020 documentary directed by “Bill & Ted” star and former child stage actor Alex Winter, other well-known child stars from various generations describe how they’ve been deeply and negatively affected by their working experiences at a young age ― from being exploited financially and emotionally, to the shock of finding they could never fit in again at school after having success in acting, to being sexually abused, to seeing the dynamics in their families altered by the needs of their burgeoning careers, to navigating the confusing swirl of being unknowing and inexperienced but still expected to handle adult situations.
None of the former child stars seemed to know that any of those things could or would happen when they decided to pursue acting.
“I know a lot of kids that grew up in the industry,” Evan Rachel Wood, who began acting as a child, says in the film. “And what surprised me when I got older was finding out that pretty much all of the young men were abused in some way sexually.”
Nikolas told me that when you become a child actor, you’re taught to swallow your feelings, and that can affect future romantic relationships, too: “Once you’re really conditioned that way, it’s super hard for you to break out of that dynamic with someone who is older than you, and you’re just constantly like, ‘Oh, I feel this way, but I don’t want to seem problematic.’”
Todd Bridges, one of the young stars of “Diff’rent Strokes,” claimed in the documentary that he was sexually abused by a publicist at age 11, and that having his father stand by the publicist put him on a path of self-destruction.
“When my dad took his side, it crushed me. It ruined me, actually, because then I was on a self-destruction course to destroy myself just to hurt him,” Bridges says.
Bridges’ experience of self-destruction is not an outlier. “Showbiz Kids” effectively uses a montage of cautionary tales to drive home the dangers of early-in-life fame: Corey Haim dying of a drug overdose, Britney Spears on a stretcher to the hospital, Shia LaBeouf taken out of a Broadway show in handcuffs, Lindsay Lohan crying after being sentenced to 90 days in jail for violating probation.
Informed consent would’ve meant all of these actors would have known, as kids, what they might be getting into. But beyond firsthand stories, there is very limited research on how being a well-known child actor can affect a person’s well-being.
The most comprehensive academic study to evaluate the emotional well-being of famous child actors was published 25 years ago, in a 1998 issue of the Journal of Personality Assessment. In the study, 74 unidentified famous former child actors in SAG ― a majority of whom had held leading or supporting television roles from the ages of 6 months to 18 years old ― answered a questionnaire about their psychological adjustment, substance abuse and peer and parental relationships. Forty-five percent of the recruited participants had appeared on the cover of a national publication like Time or People.
Although these former child stars were 40% more likely to have abused alcohol and 24% more likely to have abused drugs than the general population, most of them described themselves as well-adjusted adults who still had positive attachments to their parents.
Parenting made the biggest difference with the stress of celebrity, the study found, more so than any bond with a peer. The performers whose parents encouraged their autonomy as children, and who were satisfied with how their parents managed their money, reported higher psychosocial adjustment than the ones who said this wasn’t the case.
The authors stressed that exceptional talent did not make these young workers’ coping skills different from those of children who are not working actors.
“The notion that they are somehow immune to pressure, toughened by habituation, or psychologically compensated by the benefits of their success may make the phenomenon of child celebrity more palatable to the public; however these findings indicate otherwise,” the authors concluded.
In this way, the authors argue, these children are no more exceptional than any other child.
Mara Wilson told me she highlighted page after page of McCurdy’s memoir; she also urged her Twitter followers to read it. She said McCurdy’s anxiety about growing up ― and the challenges she faced in an effort to figure out who she was, because she was so used to acting as other people ― resonated strongly.
“Something I struggled with a long time is the idea that people liked ‘Matilda’ a lot more than they liked Mara,” Wilson said. “I was horribly afraid to let people down.”
McCurdy told BuzzFeed News that she wants any parents who read her book to think twice about letting their kids be working child actors.
“I do hope that if there are parents that are considering putting their kids in acting, I hope if they read the book… they don’t,” she said.
Nikolas wanted to act, she said, and had a supportive parent. But now, as a 30-year-old and a mother herself, she recognizes that she didn’t have any agency when she became a child worker.
“I love my mom, and my mom had the best of intentions, but do I think that’s completely a consensual decision for the child? No. It just can’t be,” Nikolas said, adding that it would probably be better to let a child’s brain develop fully before letting them make their own decision about whether they still wanted to pursue acting.
“I can only speak for myself as a child star that I don’t feel like adults should be making such intense decisions, like work, for kids,” she said.
After all, if a minor can’t consent to a sexual experience or drink alcohol, Nikolas said, “I don’t know how a kid can make a consensual decision about being a worker. I don’t know how that really adds up. I think a kid doesn’t have the mental capacity yet to understand the pros and cons of their childhood to make that decision.”
Stoner is of the same mind. She believes young children such as 6-year-olds are just beginning to understand the difference between fantasy and reality, and that they are still years away from forming a “distinct self” separate from their guardians.
“Any time you’re assuming a child has ‘made a decision with full agency’ — especially a decision that drastically influences the trajectory of their lives and their family’s — you are fooling yourself and it’s a disservice to that child’s well-being,” she said.
M., who asked to be identified only by her first initial, was a child actor on a one-season series in the ’80s, among other work. Her parents wanted her to act, she said. She believes there should be a blanket ban on child acting.
“The kids are going to say what their parents want them to say,” she said. “There is an age where consent would be possible, but consent would never be knowable because it would be the parent’s wishes regardless. So that wouldn’t be until 18.”
“I know there are kids who love it, but I think the experience of most child actors is very much losing any sense of bodily autonomy,” M. continued. “It’s not just the time you’re on set, it’s the every-day-of-your-life auditions. Most days of the week, I would have one to three auditions, which involved getting changed in a car, getting makeup put on me, which I hated, getting my hair pulled and made into a hairstyle. And then waiting around in these often small or stuffy places for hours to be called in and then going to the next place and doing that again. And then I was also emotionally manipulated into doing it by my mom giving me a Happy Meal if I complied.”
“I think that you can be a child actor that is healthy; I personally don’t believe that you can be a completely healthy child star.”
– Mara Wilson
Knowing what she knows now, Raquel Lee’s mother said she would “probably not” have allowed her daughter to be a child actor. But Lee thinks acting should still be permitted as a life-changing opportunity for other children.
“You can’t remove child acting from the world. We wouldn’t have Drew Barrymore. We wouldn’t have me. We wouldn’t have Kyla Pratt. We wouldn’t have Christina Aguilera,” she said. “Does it mess you up? I’m sure all these women I just said, I can probably have a therapy session with each and every one of them because we’ve all been through something. But I’m sure that all of us, this was our calling.”
Wilson thinks it’s still possible for children to act professionally and come out psychologically OK — as long as they don’t reach a certain level of fame.
“I’ve changed my opinion back and forth several times,” she said. “I think that you can be a child actor that is healthy; I personally don’t believe that you can be a completely healthy child star. I think that you can act in a few things, you can have some fun, maybe save up some money for college or for traveling later or starting a business … But I don’t think that you can really be world-famous and not have it affect you deeply in some way.”
I asked Smith, the social worker, whether it’s possible for a child star to come out of the experience whole. “It’s going to take a lot of extra work to make sure they’re a well-adjusted adult,” he said. And “if the child has fame or money, the support network needs to be even more entrenched.”
“Fame fundamentally alters what it means to be a child,” Petersen, the former Mouseketeer and child-actor advocate, said. “A child needs secrets and silences, a child needs to be an observer rather than the observed. They need to look around and see how the world is working. And when you make them the object of focus… you are taking a chance with their development.”
“The transition from bubblegum star or pop star into meaningful adulthood is very difficult,” he added, citing the recent death of former child star Aaron Carter as one cautionary example. “Part of it is the twisted and warped identity that you take on thanks to other people. Rather than earning it, it is pushed onto you.”
What becomes clearer after reading “I’m Glad My Mom Died” and watching works like “Showbiz Kids” is that there are child actors who believe that early-in-life fame and wealth came at a steep cost — a price that the general public does not realize children pay. As 1980s teen star Wil Wheaton, of “Stand by Me,” put it in “Showbiz Kids” about negative reviews he received when he was young: “People forget… you’re talking about a kid who is giving up their childhood to be in this thing that you’re reviewing.”
Next time you watch an “exceptional child” acting on screen, you may find yourself distracted from the show, as I always am now, thinking: Are they getting enough sleep? Do they actually want to be there? Is anyone genuinely asking how they are feeling and listening to the answer?
“When I was six years old, [my mom] pushed me into a career I didn’t want. I’m grateful for the financial stability that career has provided me, but not much else,” McCurdy wrote in the final chapter of her memoir, in which she names the abuses she suffered. “I was not equipped to handle the entertainment industry and all of its competitiveness, rejection, stakes, harsh realities, fame. I needed that time, those years, to develop as a child. To form my identity. To grow. I can never get those years back.”
“That’s so fucked,” Nikolas said when we talked about McCurdy’s experience. “Because if she would have been able to wait til she was 18, then she would have maybe had a whole different life, and I would have loved to have seen that life for her.”