For the past three years, viewers have watched the Gosselin children grow up on Jon & Kate Plus 8 on cable TV's TLC network. Cameras rolled as they went on vacation, as they ripped opened Christmas presents, even as they got ready for bed.
But with the return of the children to television in Kate Plus 8, a new series of occasional specials, the use of kids like the Gosselins in reality TV shows is getting more scrutiny from lawmakers and mental health experts.
Psychiatrists and child advocates say the shows can invade a child's privacy and confuse a child's sense of identity. Reflecting that concern, a state lawmaker has introduced a bill to strengthen child-labor laws in Pennsylvania, where Kate Plus 8 is filmed.
"Kids in these kinds of shows are not having a childhood, and you don't have to be a scientist to know what's going to happen to some of them as they get older," said Dr. Michael Brody, a Silver Spring, Md., psychiatrist and chairman of the Television and Media Committee of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. "It can be a real disaster for them."
Kate Plus 8, featuring Gosselin as a single mom raising eight children after her divorce from Jon, is hardly the only show with real-life kids in leading roles.
Toddlers & Tiaras, which tracks families with children in beauty pageants, started its third season earlier this month on TLC, and Raising Sextuplets, featuring a couple with six 2-year-olds, returns for its second year June 24 on WeTV.
"This problem is much bigger than two shows about the Gosselins," said Brody, who used the term "child abuse" to describe two of the most notorious and now- canceled examples of the genre, CBS's Kid Nation — which put adolescents in a Lord of the Flies-type scenario — and NBC's The Baby Borrowers, which left infants in the care of untrained teens.
"That's why I'm so glad to see the state of Pennsylvania at least trying to do something to protect children who are in these shows now."
Pennsylvania state Rep. Thomas Murt, the Republican sponsor of the bill, said he got involved after seeing a documentary on former child stars. In April, after complaints from constituents about the filming of Jon & Kate Plus 8, Murt held hearings on Pennsylvania's child-labor laws to gauge how well they protect young performers.
Beyond issues of privacy and boundaries, reality TV is seen as being potentially dangerous to child performers because it manipulates their own realities.
"Just doing retakes, where they stage a scene and then reshoot it again because something went wrong, really screws up a kid's sense of reality," Brody said.
Murt said members of his committee were told of a staged scene in which the Gosselin children were told it was Christmas so the producers could get film of "the children coming downstairs in their pajamas, opening presents" and looking excited.
"They were filmed opening their presents — being excited, of course, as any innocent child would be," he said. "And then they were told later on, well, no, it's not really Christmas."
"You can't behave normally with cameras and sound systems all around you," said Paul Peterson, who played Donna Reed's son in the 1960s family comedy The Donna Reed Show on ABC. Peterson runs the California-based foundation A Minor Consideration, founded to provide support for current and former child performers.
"Cameras alter behavior. Just think back to what you felt like when your dad pulled out the Super 8 (home movie camera). ... You don't control those images."
Peterson said the "core issue is consent. Children do not have the power to disobey — nor do they understand the full consequences of their participation."
TLC, the cable channel most heavily involved in showing reality TV programs featuring children, declined interview requests. But in an interview last year, TLC president Eileen O'Neill emphasized the "opportunities" that the show offered the Gosselins — chances to travel and experience new adventures.
Child psychiatrist Jenna Saul-Kuntz said any examination of childhood and the potential effects of media documentation of it should start with the Dionne quintuplets, five identical girls born in rural Canada in 1934.
"We have to take a look at what happened to those quintuplets, because I think it more accurately reflects what's going on with these reality TV shows than what would be reflected even by child stars" in scripted series, Saul-Kuntz said. "I think acting in a fake setting as a child star on TV is different from being in a reality TV setting where the cameras are always running" in the real setting of their lives.
Shortly after their birth in the pre-TV era, the Dionne girls were put on public display at a nursery, were photographed endlessly and became models for best- selling dolls. They later said the experience ruined their lives.
"Multiple births should not be confused with entertainment, nor should they be an opportunity to sell products," the three surviving Dionne sisters wrote in an open letter in 1997 in Time magazine. "We sincerely hope a lesson will be learned from examining how our lives were forever altered by our childhood experience."