Children in reality TV: a comparative and international perspective

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The article addresses the proper balance between (a) preventing harm to children participating in reality TV and preventing injury to privacy, and (b) the freedom of expression of the participating children, the commercial freedom of speech of media outlets and advertisers, and the public’s right to watch these programs, which currently enjoy top ratings. It is generally believed that TV channels often exploit the desire of children and of their parents to become famous by participating in a reality show, without considering the price that the children and their families pay for participating. Is this indeed the case, and is the picture necessarily one-sided? Although the topic is relevant to many areas of law, legislation regarding the participation of children in general entertainment programs is scarce and is not particularly well suited for reality shows. The article attempts to assist in creating legislation or uniform regulation in the field while respecting the success these programs enjoy and the legal rights of the television channels that host them. This is balanced against the desire to prevent the field from being left wide open and the legal rights of the children from being infringed. The article accomplishes this, in part, by comparing the American approach to the British and French regulations and to the UN Convention of the Rights of the Child.

The article presents three prototypes to introduce a balanced model that will achieve this goal: talent shows (e.g., “America’s Got Talent” or “MasterChef Junior”), parental training in child care by observing a family therapist in real time (e.g., “Nanny 911”), and competitive tasks within the framework of “Survival” for children (e.g., “Kid Nation”). A set of key parameters are presented for assessing the legitimacy of participation. The parameters include (1) assessment of the child’s genuine consent and of the complex question of the child’s wish and privacy with reference to the parent’s wish and desire for fame; (2) harm vs. benefit to the child, the family, and the public in the short and the long terms; (3) the effect of the duration of exposure; and (4) the age of the child.

There is an ongoing debate concerning the relationship between damages and benefits of reality shows to participants and the public. This is especially true concerning programs featuring children. The starting point of the model presented in the article will be the need for striking a successful and proper balance between the rights, welfare, dignity, and privacy of the children, and other interests. In the current reality, it is not possible to prevent children from participating in these shows entirely, and the public has the liberty to watch such programs. However, such child participation should be limited as much as possible. The model will introduce several suggestions based on a distributive and deterrent approach, which reflect similar measures implemented in the French legislation and British regulations of Ofcom, the UK regulator for television and radio. The US has a long history of developing children’s rights and of protecting workers from exploitation. Regulating children’s participation in reality shows, thus developing children’s rights and protecting said children from worker exploitation, is the next and natural step in this direction.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)290-360
Number of pages70
JournalDuke Journal of Comparative and International Law
Issue number1
StatePublished - 2015


  • Reality, children, privacy


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