Jon and Kate Plus 8 is currently TLC’s highest rated program. For those who have not turned on the TV or read the news in the past year, the reality show follows Jon and Kate Gosselin and their eight children, a set of twins (now age 10) and sextuplets (now age 5). The children are quite adorable, so it is easy to see how they have captured the country’s attention.
The show has been on the air for five seasons now. Which raises an issue: can a childhood spent almost entirely in front of cameras be good for the Gosselin children?
The Trauma of Reality
Reality shows have become a mainstay of American television. In addition to being cheaper to produce, audiences enjoy watching people “just like them” compete and interact with one another, especially when the interaction comes in the form of drama and conflict. It taps into our voyeuristic nature, our need to know other people’s business.
This is very entertaining for those watching at home. It is a different story for those on the program. Seeing it as an easy way to achieve fame, most reality show participants do not fully realize what life will be like after so much of their life has been exposed to the cameras. This is especially true of reality show “villians.” In order to create conflict, producers will often manipulate the goings on of a show, using editing to portray only the negative qualities of certain contestants. When these people try to live their lives after the show, they are now defined by what others saw of them on TV. But unlike actors, who also spend much time in front of cameras, they were supposedly being themselves, which leads to much harsher scrutiny and criticism.
This can lead to psychological trauma, and very serious trauma at that. At least eleven former reality show contestants have committed suicide following their appearances on the programs.
Growing Up on Television (Literally)
Jon and Kate Plus 8 poses even greater concerns for it’s stars, because they are ten and under. If adults have a hard time moving on with life after their respective shows end, it would be expected that kids would have a much more difficult time coping with life away from the gaze of the camera.
There are many concerns living a childhood almost entirely in front of film crews present. The first is the most obvious, the amount of attention the children get. After growing up with constant exposure, it will not be easy to deal with no longer being the center of attention once the show ends. Child actors are notorious for their bad behavior as they get older, as they have become accustomed to living life in the fantasy world of Hollywood sets. For the Gosselin children, the “set” and their real lives are one and the same. It must be confusing for a young child to grow up in a setting where this is the norm, and will not likely translate well into adulthood.
In addition, they have lost all sense of privacy, and it will follow them through the rest of their lives. It may be cute to watch them throw a temper tantrum now, but it could become a source of ridicule when they get older. And with Jon and Kate’s divorce making headlines, what should be a private family matter has now become tabloid fodder.
Second, children on reality shows can be manipulated by producers, just like adults can. The producers of Supernanny were accused by parents Paul and Susan Young for encouraging their children to act out even more than they normally would. After the show, they claimed their kids behavior was even more unruly than before. Being more impressionable, this manipulation brought on by producers has an even bigger impact on a child’s life than an adults. While no specific accusations have been brought against the producers of Jon and Kate Plus 8, there is still the danger that it could easily happen.
Thirdly, children themselves cannot give consent to the producers. It was never any of the Gosselin children’s decision to have their lives broadcast into American homes. The question then becomes whether or not Jon and Kate are exploiting their children. This is a difficult question to answer. There is no doubt that the show has made it easier for Jon and Kate to provide for their large family. But whether or not this help is worth the possible trauma it could cause the eight kids is harder to asses.
The Real Cost of Reality
It is important to realize that when it comes to reality shows, what may be entertaining while watching at home may not be so to those involved in the programs themselves. They have to try and assimilate back into their normal lives after their brief flirtation with fame. With Jon and Kate Plus 8, and other kid-centric reality shows, their ability to cope is much less. Perhaps it is time to consider these concerns before deciding what shows to tune into.