Children in the Spotlight: Is Struggle More Likely Than Stardom?
Updated: Sep 10, 2018
In the late 1980’s and 1990’s, spunky shows and sitcoms aimed at the youth were popping up on television screens across the country as millennials watched adoringly. The commonality between all of these programs is the presence of prepubescent main characters.
Some child stars continue to grace the big screen and maintain success in the industry like Leonardo DiCaprio (Oscar still pending) or go on to have a greater impact on the world like Emma Watson (she graduated from Brown then became the UN’s Women Goodwill ambassador like it was #NBD). While others’ lives are tainted by the loss of innocence and pressure they experienced when growing up in the spotlight.
For example, Candace Cameron Bure, better known as D.J. Tanner, took a nearly ten year hiatus from stardom after Full House had ended and after she appeared in a few other small roles. Following her break, she was granted multiple roles in ABC Family and Hallmark channel movies and a recurring role on The View. She has also been married for the past 17 years, which equates to about a century in Hollywood time.
On the other hand, her co-star Jodie Sweetin fell into a cycle of substance abuse at the age of 14 after the beloved series had ended. She admitted to using drugs like ecstasy, methamphetamine and cocaine even saying, “There were times I did so much coke, I’d be there laying there, getting sick and thinking ‘I’m going to die.’ But I didn’t care,” during a 2009 interview with Us Weekly.
There is no comprehensive formula as to why so many child stars go down this path but their naivety to the manipulation of Hollywood, their familial environments and the pressure they face as on-screen role models could have something to do with it.
Angelique Bates, who starred in Nickelodeon’s All That! alongside Amanda Bynes and others, thinks that being a child star leads to being limited to your most famous role, even as you try to grow out of it. “The hardest part about being a child star is being type casted to where sometimes you can’t get other work for awhile if at all.” Bates also explained that being a developing actor can lead to being vulnerable to manipulation. “As a child star you have a lot of people that act like they like you. When you are young you have not yet begun to learn about fake friends… You just want to have fun,” she said. Bates notes the difficulties that come from past fame, but she uses her recognizable name by sending a message through motivational speaking in urban communities or advocating for domestic violence awareness and animal rights.
It may not just be their age that has an effect on their life after the big screen. Their early life or the environment in which they grew up can also have an impact. Doctor Cyndy Scheibe, an Ithaca College psychology professor and Cornell University alumna explains that the way a child star ends up may not be because of the industry itself, but rather the home environment in which they grew up. “The role of the parents is crucial,” she said. “Whether the parents push the success or treat the child as a commodity versus making sure that the child has a mostly normal life.”
There has not been comprehensive research on child stars specifically, but Scheibe’s reasoning holds true when it comes to Cameron Bure and Sweetin. Cameron Bure grew up with supportive parents who were experienced in how the industry worked, since her older brother was an actor as well. As for Sweetin, she wrote in her autobiography UnSweetined that she believes her biological parents are part of the reason for her addictive ways, and as a teen she felt resentment towards her adoptive parents because they could not relate to her struggle.
Finally, the expectations that adolescent actors face can lead to the public breakdowns that are constantly being reported. Former child star Mara Wilson talked to People Magazine in 2013 about why she believes some of these young public figures end up having public breakdowns.
“Child stars are supposed to be role models, and, as such, are constantly reined in by parents, studios and managers,” said Wilson. And the more famous they are, the more pressure there is to constantly deliver up to the standard of their previous roles. She goes on to theorize about the effect an unconventional early education has on the young celebs. “As a result of not getting detention in school as kids, child stars by the time they hit their late teens and early 20s finally start acting out, often with major consequences.”
Whether it’s the pressure, the home life, or even just the biological predispositions that lead these stars down a certain path we may never know, but it’s obvious that growing up in the industry has different effects on each individual. If anything, take the whole idea of child stardom with a grain of salt and think twice before taking your newborn to get headshots, case closed.