[TW – sexual abuse]

Big dreams often begin in childhood, and the question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” so often prompts starry-eyed responses. While some lucky people fulfill their calling later in life, even fewer can make their dreams come true at a young age. The film industry offers a fast-track ticket to that dream. 

Whether young or old, many people aspire to fame. It can be especially tempting for children, who identify so closely with the people they watch on TV. But while fame promises a glamourous lifestyle, it conceals a cruel reality behind the curtains. Soon, any dream quickly turns into a nightmare. Even as an adult, the challenges that come with being a celebrity can be unbearable. So, what happens when you place those burdens on a child?  

For former childhood stars such as Amanda BynesShia LaBeouf, and Britney Spears, the consequences of early fame were psychological distress, bouts of drug and alcohol addiction, and run-ins with the law.

While stardom can be cheery, these examples show that isn’t always the case. Problems tend to arise for many children when they’re forced into the life of acting against their own will, often by their parents. With no control, child actors are deprived of a quiet life and are subjected to Hollywood’s dark side. 

It’s hard to grow up as your own person when the world has its eyes on you. Many familiar faces who made their debut in childhood have shared their experiences about the damages of an early exposure to Hollywood and how it’s affected their mental health. Alongside drug and alcohol abuse, they face media sexualization, overwhelming work hours, a lack of privacy, and bullying, among other struggles. The list of harmful consequences is lengthy, which sadly, sometimes ends in severe breakdowns and death. 

For many characters that we love and grew up with—the mischievous twins, Annie and Hallie, in Parent Trap, or Kevin McCallister and his inventive traps in Home Alone, or the goofy, but tough Sam Puckett in iCarly—the industry life hurts the real children, Lindsay LohanMacaulay Culkin, and Jennette McCurdy, off-screen. 

“Productions are good at covering themselves legally,” says British casting director, Shaheen Baig, in The Guardian. “But doing the right thing needs something else—hiring people to work with kids who actually like kids should be a given, but it isn’t.”

In some cases, stars such as Natalie Portman and Dakota Fanning rise from child stardom stronger than ever. They aren’t completely unscathed from the experience, but they survive. In other cases, some child stars only come back after going through Hollywood’s hell. 

There are various associated factors that predict how well a person adjusts after childhood stardom. Factors such as strong parental attachment and typical social experiences. 

“If the parents can keep every other aspect of the child’s life controlled and normal and there are continued boundaries and rules, those are the kids that do well,” says psychologist Ginger Clark in an interview with USA Today.

“If you don’t have a really stable parental unit that’s setting limits ahead of time, then the roles get flipped easily and the child becomes the parent. They’re not ready for the responsibility. And you see kids spin out a little bit.”

This spinning out applies to Drew Barrymore, as her story is often the poster for the worst Hollywood has to offer. Coming from a family of actors and actresses, Barrymore debuted at four, but rose to fame at seven years old for her role as Gertie in the popular sci-fi adventure E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial

“One day I was a little girl, and the next day I was being mobbed by people who wanted me to sign autographs or pose for pictures or who just wanted to touch me. It was frightening. I was this seven-year-old who was expected to be going on a mature 29,” Barrymore told People Magazine.

Barrymore has been open about her downward spiral. Her childhood fame led the actress to drink at just seven years old, go to nightclubs as early as nine, and do drugs at 10, all culminating in being institutionalized at 13 years old. Barrymore credits that 18-month hospital stay to helping her when she needed it most. And like Portman and Fanning, she too survived. 

Among all the different worlds movies offer, there’s still the real world off-screen. Instead of children growing toward their dreams, those dreams can feed off children when there’s a lack of care in the industry. Putting an overworked and overstressed child in an environment way beyond their years can often deprive them of writing their own story, developing their self-esteem, and living a happy life.

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