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TLC: Traumatizing Little Children?

2010/05/13

I love reality television. I truly do. But I have come to one conclusion over my years of couch surfing: TLC ruins lives.

I‘m not saying anything new, I don’t think. I, like everyone else, is sick of hearing about John and Kate Gosselin and their babies, and I don’t quite understand TLC’s recent obsession with little-people families. What started innocently enough as Little People Big World has blossomed into The Little Couple and most recently The Little Chocolatiers (personally, I would like to see a show based on little person construction workers. They could call it From the Ground Up). But that’s all beside the point; regardless of height, TLC provides our daily dose of Schadenfreude via the slow demise of its “stars”.

This piece isn’t particularly invested in defending the “family unit”–people get divorced and families fall apart,oftentimes for good reasons–but rather questions the ethics of filming, editing, and airing a family’s downfall. More concisely, I worry about how the children of TLC families will be effected by their participation on the show. (I know, the “what about the children?” card is a cheap one to play, and I’d typically avoid it. But I happen to find this situation one that warrants it). First of all, the notion of informed consent gets thrown right out the window when it comes to children on these shows. I understand that parents have the right to speak as legal guardian for their children in certain situations, and I’m willing to bet that many of the kids in TLC are excited just to be on television, but the boundaries of consent seem awfully iffy to me. Most of the nineteen Duggar children (from 19 Kids and Counting) have no choice as to whether they appear on our television screens, and though they don’t seem to mind it, I wonder how they will feel when they’ve all grown up and they realize that their fondest childhood memories all involve television cameras?

And what about their not so favorite memories? My beef isn’t the fact that some families on TLC are falling apart (Jon and Kate plus Eight has now become Kate plus Eight, and the Roloff family of Little People Big World has not been the picture of domestic bliss in its fifth season) but that we and the entire family will have audiovisual documentation of the entire affair. Imagine! The ability to watch your parents fight and divorce each other on a deluxe DVD box set and in off-season syndicated reruns! I have always had respect for parents that know how traumatic these kinds of things can be for children and so go off and fight in the car, or attic, or wherever, but life in front of the camera doesn’t exactly have room for private drama.

I wonder what will happen when the kids on TLC shows, even those from stable, loving families, have the cameras taken away? Our culture’s past treatment of child stars has shown that when you grow up in the public eye, it has an effect on you when the cameras get taken away. Will we reach a point when audiences no longer care about the Gosselin children (if we aren’t already there), and does someone have to tell the kids “you aren’t cute enough anymore”? Will we soon after get a spree of Duggars on reality game shows in desperate attempts to be famous forever? (You could cast a whole season of Survivor just from that family. Now wouldn’t I watch that!) I’m merely hypothesizing, and may be completely off base. It’s possible that when their show is cancelled the children will heave a sigh of relief, and go off to leave perfectly boring lives.

Ten years from now, or however long it takes, we’ll find out exactly how our relatively recent obsession with TLC families has affected these kids. I propose we name whatever it is they’ve got Post-Reality Stress Disorder (trademarked) or PRSD. It can be the big thing of their generation, like the phantom vibrations I suffer from due to my constant carrying of a cell phone. 

I think I’ll leave you with this tidbit from the Discovery Network’s (the monolithic parent network of TLC) ethics statement. It has that wonderfully vagueness all businesses have:

Discovery is committed to managing its business activities in full compliance with all applicable laws and regulations and to ensuring honest and ethical behavior by its directors, officers, employees and contingent workers.  To facilitate and encourage the prompt reporting of suspected events of non-compliance, and to provide employees and contingent workers with a confidential, anonymous, toll-free avenue for reporting suspected events of non-compliance, Discovery has established a toll-free Ethics Hotline, operated by a third-party provider, The Network.

Don’t you feel better now?

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