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The “Reality” of Kids on Television

Reality TV continues to evolve, and we must see equal evolution in the law.

Key points

  • In 1939, California passed the Coogan Law, which ensures that 15 percent of a child performers’ earnings be placed in a trust.
  • Under existing state laws, a child on reality TV or paid social media does not qualify under child labor or performer laws.
  • Children on reality TV deserve more protection because it is their own identities and lives being put on public display.

If you happened to watch the "The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills" reunion the past two weeks, you heard the women declare that the “kids are off limits.” This comment was made primarily in relation to Garcelle Beauvais questioning a costar to see if she was behind the online racist attacks directed at her 14-year-old son after he appeared in an episode. Over on social media, the commenters piled in, clearly not getting the memo that kids who appear on reality television are “off-limits.”

How might we better protect children who appear on TV and social media?

History of Children on TV

History provides some answers. Children have been on television since the medium began. By the time television became mainstream in the late 1940s and 1950s, child performers were partially protected based on lessons learned from the film industry. Jackie Coogan, one of the first major child stars, discovered his parents had spent all his earnings.

 Unknown photographer, 1921, public domain
Jackie Coogan performing with Charlie Chaplin
Source: Unknown photographer, 1921, public domain

In 1939, California passed what came to be known as the Coogan Law, which ensures that 15 percent of a child performer’s earnings be placed in a blocked trust account until they become adults. Coogan’s Law had several other provisions that also protected a child’s welfare such as time spent on set and schooling.

Reality Television

Since the first “reality” series, "An American Family," hit our screens in 1971, children have become regulars of reality TV. But these kids have not yet been granted the same protection of recognized “performers” like Coogan. One reason for this anomaly is due to a contractual nuance, as the children themselves are often without a contract separate from their parents. The child in effect becomes a “bonus character” by proxy of the parent, and, thus, the child is not afforded full legal protection like other working minors.

Under existing state laws, a child on reality TV does not qualify under child labor or performer laws. When you consider that children who appear on reality television shows deserve at least as much protection as other child performers, it is not difficult to go even further and argue that they deserve more protection because it is their own identities and their own lives being put on public display. You may recall the enormously popular TLC show "Jon & Kate Plus 8" (later "Kate Plus 8"), featuring a couple, their twin daughters, and their sextuplets. All the Gosselin kids are now over 18, but, thanks to the show, they can look back at the very personal story of one sister telling the world that another “pooped in her underwears” during potty training.

A recent high-profile custody battle brought the issue of parental protection to the fore. Christina Hall’s two eldest children had long appeared on her HGTV reality series "Flip or Flop." Not so for her youngest child from her marriage to fellow television personality Ant Anstead. Anstead did not want his 3-year-old son, Hudson, to appear on reality TV (a decision he had previously made for his two older children). Anstead’s own decade of experience on TV allowed him to give compelling reasons why he did not want his young son in this line of work. In court filings, he said he feared meme-able moments and deemed exposure to toxic comments on social media simply not worth the risk. He referred to Kailia Posey who was just five when she appeared on TLC’s "Toddlers & Tiaras," becoming a viral meme sensation with her impish grin. Tragically, Posey died by suicide earlier this year.

Kids on Social Media

Anstead framed his ex-wife’s insistence to have their son appear on reality television as exploitative. He wrote on his Instagram account that his son Hudson’s “childhood is not for sale.”

This same custody battle also exposed another group of “child performers” who are in desperate need of updated legal protection: kids on social media. Anstead had numerous examples of Hudson being used in paid posts on Hall’s Instagram account. Hudson is seen selling vitamins, toys, beds, air purifiers, and baked goods. The Federal Trade Commission has created guidelines around the presentation of such “paid” posts, but a child (in this case Hudson) is currently not legally protected.

Despite Anstead agreeing to organic family posts being acceptable, Hall revealed, ironically in an Instagram post, that she will no longer use Hudson on her TV shows or any social media. A win for Hudson, yes, but it denies the courts an opportunity to set new case law and create a precedent for children on reality TV and paid social media.

I argue we should not wait for another legal battle to get to court to protect all kids on reality TV and social media. We need a “Hudson’s Law” now.

As a starting point, Coogan’s Law should be extended to explicitly include children on reality television shows and social media. Only 11 states currently have Coogan-like laws, so these expanded protections need to be passed nationwide and include a new “Hudson’s Law.”

In a changing world, children must be protected. While these legal changes may not stop online haters, at a minimum, the changes will help ensure that the children can hold on to some essence of a normal childhood—with protections in place so that they will at least have some money to pay for therapy when they are adults.

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More from Hilary Levey Friedman Ph.D.
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