Fame and our kids

by Joe Ferullo

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I have two daughters: a teen and a tween -- so a big topic of conversation around our kitchen table these last few days has been the fate of 18-year old Demi Lovato, a Disney Channel star who has placed herself into rehab.

And it's not just my house: both The Los Angeles Times and The New York Times did long takes on the teen actress this weekend.

Lovato's image was (and is) squeaky-clean: hers is the story of a small-town kid who had a Hollywood dream and made it big. No drugs, no alcohol. And, in fact, neither of those substances lead to her rehab visit -- instead, she was involved in stress-related behavior perhaps even more troubling: eating disorders and "cutting."

These problems had apparently begun before she "made it big" with her latest TV series -- she'd spent many years struggling as a child actress. Lovato even had a role in the toddler program "Barney" when she was in fifth grade. According to The Los Angeles Times, Lovato's father, Patrick, said he has been worried about how his daughter would cope with the pressures of being a child star. But he said he never discussed his qualms with her mother, Dianna De La Garza.

All of this information fascinates my daughters, because none of it is even hinted at in the television that's aimed at them. In the last few years, TV has exploded with shows about kids who act in shows. "Sonny With a Chance" has Lovato play a riff on her own home-spun image: her character is a small-town girl who is magically cast to star in a Hollywood TV show. Other programs aimed at kids -- from "iCarly" on Nickelodeon to the screamingly popular "Hannah Montana" on Disney -- focus on teens and tweens who are, first and foremost, famous.

Nowhere in these shows do you see the stress of show business -- and how that especially effects children. Often these kids are pushed into the role of tiny breadwinners for their families: parents with limited resources invest in acting classes, singing coaches, and trips to the West Coast. Failure at an early age can feel like failure for life -- and many children who do make it find out that fame fades fast. It's a lot for any thirteen year old to cope with.

Like so many things, fame American-style is sold as something fast and easy -- a microwavable TV dinner of fun and self-focus. But -- like so many things -- the reality is much less glamorous, and revolves around notions such as training, practice, perseverance and -- always -- luck.

My daughters now know better -- if a whole bunch of other teens know better, too, then Lovato has helped out more than she'll ever know.

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