This story was originally covered by PRI's Here and Now. For more, listen to the audio above.
Many reality TV producers have claimed that the children who compete on their shows aren't employees. They're "participants in a documentary-style program" reporter Matea Gold told PRI's Here and Now. The distinction may seem slight, but the children are getting very little legal protection when they appear on TV.
State child labor laws don't necessarily apply to these children, in part because they're not employees. There are no state-appointed representatives or unions reps to make sure that the kids work hours are limited. There are no compensation guarantees, and if they are compensated, there's no guarantee that the money will be put into a trust and be available to them when they're older.
"There are plenty of shows being filmed in many different states that are not complying with child labor laws," Gold reports, "and the state agencies we spoke to said they're not sure if they need to." Child labor regulations throughout the United States are a patchwork of laws that differ from state to state. In fact, 17 states actually have no laws to protect child performers.
This can be a problem, because as advocates point out, "parents can really be seduced by Hollywood to put their children in shows that may not be in their best interests," Gold reports. In one show, parents gave their children over to teenagers to see how they would be able to cope with the challenges of parenthood. In the show "Kid Nation," children were sequestered in a "Lord of the Flies" style community and asked to build their own society.
Some states have begun to change their laws to crack down on some of the more exploitative practices. New Mexico, where "Kid Nation" was filmed, has tightened its laws to the point where the show could not be filmed there today. In Pennsylvania, the state found that the show "Jon and Kate Plus 8" had erred in not obtaining work permits for the children in the show.
On a federal level, however, there are still no regulations protecting children on reality TV shows. And as long as parents keep handing their children over to producers, and viewers keep watching, the exploitative behavior is likely to continue.
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