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Hollywood Child Labor Abuse
July 23, 2007

By James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.
contributor to

In this educator and cultural commentator's opinion, CBS television has made a highly questionable programming decision.

Following the TV success adage that reality shows receive a boost from controversy, the network has produced a series for the fall called "Kid Nation," where 40 children live in an abandoned New Mexico mining town ostensibly with no adult supervision.

The show could be called "Student Council Meets ‘Lord of the Flies,'" the basic premise being that when left to their own devices (i.e., no adults around) children who are attempting self-governing will provide reality TV entertainment pleasure to the viewing audience.

However, in typical faux-reality fashion, the kids on the CBS show are actually surrounded by adult producers, adult camera crews, adult make-up artists, adult sound technicians, etc.

It turns out that producers of the show skirted guidelines and laws meant to protect children, used youngsters in hopes of garnering ratings and ended up with a product that delivers a terrible message to parents, teachers, and society at large.

CBS apparently managed to slip under the wire just ahead of new legislation in New Mexico that closed loopholes in the state's child labor laws. Unlike California and New York, prior to July 1, 2007, New Mexico had exempted theatrical production from its child protection laws.

The Land of Enchantment has now joined the Golden and Empire States in having strict rules that include the following: The number of hours children can work on the set is a maximum of 18 during a school week, with no filming taking place after 7 p.m. Children must be fed proper meals as well, and studio teachers and a parent or guardian must be present on the set.

For the "Kid Nation" production, over the course of 40 days 8 to 15-year-olds spent up to 14 hours a day working on the set. Teachers were conspicuously absent, despite the fact that filming took place in April and May of 2007 while the school year was still underway.

The notion of kids being objects of our entertainment affections has a long history in Hollywood that harkens back to the child stars of the Golden Age. Still, placing teens and pre-teens in a reality show pressure cooker looks a whole lot more like exploitation than anything Art Linkletter or Bill Cosby ever contemplated.

Kids, by their nature, are still in the process of developing the physical, emotional, and psychological wherewithal to deal with the dynamics of real life.

To place them into a reality television show setting, where they must prematurely deal with adult-sized conflicts of the intellectual, social and moral kind (including jockeying for position in a mini "society," developing physical, mental, and emotional stamina and competing against other contestants for substantial monetary gain) is cruel, in my book.

To compound the "entertainment" madness, the pint-sized drama plays out in front of millions of people via the TV broadcast airwaves. In preview footage, children are shown arguing, weeping and collapsing from exhaustion.

In addition to the questionable nature of the show and dubious tactics employed, a subtext appears to be at play as well. Promotional materials for "Kid Nation" state that the children "will try to fix their forefathers' mistakes and build a new town that works."

The implication is that the Founders' design was utterly flawed, and children have the answers for correcting the nation's ills. This echoes a familiar refrain that for years has resounded across the media land and continues to permeate our entertainment fare, marketing and advertising materials and print; the message - kids are smarter than adults.

This is a contributing factor to the strange predicament that we find ourselves in here in America; that is, we have a generation of children who, despite poor academic performance when compared to other nations, possess a highly over-inflated opinion of themselves.

"Kid Nation" doesn't sound like a place where anyone would want to live, much less visit on a weekly basis.

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Copyright © 2007
James L. Hirsen, J.D., Ph.D.
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