Are you a Kate Plus 8 fan? How about The Real Housewives of New Jersey? 19 Kids and Counting? These three reality shows, and many others, feature children either as central or occasional “characters.”
Sociologist Hilary Levey recently questioned some of the legal issues surrounding children on reality television in a USA Today op-ed. She points out that child actors have specific legal protections in states where child performers have traditionally worked, like California and New York, which mandate that a minimum of fifteen percent of a child’s income be placed in a trust account they can later access as adults. However, children on reality shows currently have no legal right to any money their show earns, nor have they typically been protected by child labor laws since they are technically not actors, as a Los Angeles Times story recently discussed.
In contrast to reality TV producers, researchers who study children and families in their homes adhere to specific ethical guidelines that may illuminate the debate about the ethics of children on reality television. (For a couple examples check out sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild’s classic study, The Second Shift, and sociologist Annette Lareau’s Unequal Childhoods: Class, Race, and Family Life).
Researching children might involve surveys, experiments, or extended observations, which bear some similarities with reality television shows that involve children. In contrast to reality show producers, researchers mask the identity of the children they study and virtually never release their images publicly, let alone hours of video.
Anyone who has filed an application with their IRB knows that the process can be lengthy and sometimes stressful, as board members can require repeated clarifications about your research plan and its purpose. And yet this is demanding in order to protect both the subjects involved and, of course, protect the institution from any legal liability.
In most cases researchers are supposed to fully disclose the nature of the study and its purpose to all potential participants. If researchers plan to use any deception or mask the true purpose of the research—which they sometimes do—the researchers must prove to the IRB that this is absolutely necessary, and document a full list of worst-case-scenario contingency plans to help their subjects. At a minimum, researchers should debrief participants after the study is over, which includes telling them what the study was really about and make sure that all participants are physically and psychologically okay.
When applying for IRB approval, researchers must report whether their study includes populations considered uniquely vulnerable, such as minors. (Pregnant women, prisoners, and the disabled are considered vulnerable populations, too; pregnant women because of their physical condition and prisoners and the disabled because they might be easily coerced into participating in research).
To protect all participants, researchers are required to obtain informed consent, meaning that before agreeing to participate, an individual should be informed of all of the potential risks and benefits that their involvement in the study might bring. It is also meant to prevent people from being pressured into participating.
Special populations—like children—may fear repercussions from adults if they refuse to participate. Federal guidelines require not only parental consent, but also children’s assent—which means the child must agree to participate in the study too. Here are some of the guidelines, from the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS):
HHS will conduct or fund research in which the IRB finds that more than minimal risk to children is presented by an intervention or procedure that does not hold out the prospect of direct benefit for the individual subject, or by a monitoring procedure which is not likely to contribute to the well-being of the subject, only if the IRB finds that:
(b) The intervention or procedure presents experiences to subjects that are reasonably commensurate with those inherent in their actual or expected medical, dental, psychological, social, or educational situations;
(c) The intervention or procedure is likely to yield generalizable knowledge about the subjects' disorder or condition which is of vital importance for the understanding or amelioration of the subjects' disorder or condition; and
(d) Adequate provisions are made for soliciting assent of the children and permission of their parents or guardians, as set forth in §46.408.
Basically, these guidelines require that any risks to children involved with research be as minimal as possible, and that children’s activities in the research process are generally similar to those in their normal lives.
Many reality shows focus on children’s everyday activities, as item (b) above discusses. But critics have asked what risks might come with their participation. Having cameras record a child’s temper tantrum or struggles with potty training might seem innocuous, but it raises questions about a child’s right to privacy. Adults would almost certainly never allow a camera to follow them into a bathroom, and might feel more empowered to ask the crew to turn off the cameras during an emotionally difficult time.
Item (c) raises series distinctions between research and reality television. While risks of research could be outweighed by the benefits of the knowledge researchers gain about human behavior, reality television makes no claim to provide social benefits aside from entertainment. Yes, we might learn what it is like for a family to have an unusually large number of children, but most programs don’t necessarily add to our body of knowledge.
Are the potential risks children might face through participating in reality television worth the financial gain? The answer is not clear cut. Yes, their parents might be able to afford to provide more for them materially. The children could get to travel and partake in many kid-friendly adventures they wouldn’t get to do otherwise.
And yet concerns about physical injury during the 2007 filming of Kid Nation and the potential psychological effects of living in front of cameras remain important questions. What other ethical concerns arise from children appearing on reality television?