The child star problem

Who do so many child stars succumb to drugs or mental illness, and who is to blame?

May 29, 2013

Six years ago, rising teen idol Amanda Bynes went on The View to talk about how "normal" she was in comparison to other fallen child stars like Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan: 

"You have to have to your eye on the prize, and you have to have goals in life," she said. "I want a long career, and I don't think that partying and stuff is the best way to achieve that." 
 
Oh, how things have changed.
 
Last week, Bynes was arrested for allegedly throwing a bong out of her apartment window. She then threatened to sue the NYPD for sexual harrassment after they sent her to the psych ward for an evaluation. 
 
This event is just the latest in a string of bizarre antics from Bynes over the past year: a DUI in April 2012, two hit-and-runs, a mass firing of all her staff members, a now-infamous Twitter account that grows more disturbing and nonsensical by the day and a wigged-out new look that is shocking to say the least. 
 
What happened to the bubbly child actress whose prodigious talent earned her a spot on Nickelodeon's All That by age 10, her own sketch comedy show at age 13 and a slew of memorable film roles (What A Girl Wants, She's the Man) before her 21st birthday?
 
Or, even more importantly, what happened to all of the other child stars whose once-promising careers turned into hellish downward spirals of drug abuse, sex scandals, bouts with mental illness, multiple trips to rehab and for many, tragic and untimely death?
 
For as long as "stage moms" have been shoving their kids in front of cameras, child stars have been turning to drugs or engaging in other harmful behaviors in order to reconcile the damaging psychological effects of early fame.  Notable examples include Judy Garland, Bobby Driscoll, Michael Jackson, Corey Haim, Jonathon Brandis, Dana Plato, Brad Renfro and River Phoenix—all of whom died of either a drug overdose or suicide after spending the majority of their childhoods in the glaring spotlight. 
 
Some have been able to turn their lives around (like Todd Bridges and Drew Barrymore) while only a select group  has managed to avoid the self-destructive tendencies that befell so many others. 
 
In most cases though, the vast majority of these success stories resulted from either a career redirection or departure from the industry altogether. For example: Shirley Temple turned to a career in politics and diplomacy, Ron Howard stepped behind the camera, and a long list of others (including Jodie Foster, Natalie Portman and Claire Danes) took a break to attend college and experience at least a small slice of normalcy for once in their lives.
 
Perhaps that's all they need: a step back, a break from stardom and a chance to be "normal." Still, early fame and depression are often inextricably linked. Career slumps are difficult for adults to handle; but for children whose egos are still painfully fragile and whose brains haven't fully developed, the pit falls of fame are even more confusing, scary and mentally devastating beyond repair. 
 
A few years ago, former child star and recovering drug addict Corey Feldman (The Goonies, Stand by Me) revealed that pedophilia is the biggest problem facing children in Hollywood.
 
However, he also admitted that growing up in front of the camera (he started acting in commercials at age three) had already laid the groundwork for a descent into depression and drug abuse; and that without proper guidance, the same could happen to anyone.  
 
Maybe we can't prevent child stars from self-destructing, but we can take steps to stop perpetuating the cycle. 
 
Popular media: stop sexualizing children. Tabloids: leave them alone. Responsible adults: be parents, not enablers. And for goodness sake, let Quvenzhan√© Wallis wear her puppy purse for as long as possible. She may be a Best Actress nominee with many exciting roles ahead of her, but she'll only be a 9-year-old once. 
 
Leah Pickett writes about popular culture for WBEZ. Follow her on Facebook, Twitter or Tumblr.