Matt Ox is 12 years old. Bhad Bhabie is 14. Lil Pump—17 and known to livestream sex acts with fans—still has braces.
Child stars have always been a point of contention in the public eye, raising questions of exploitation and agency. While repercussions have been mixed—just google your favorite child actors’ before-and-after photos—overall, there’s a general sense that child fame is a net negative.
Driven by equal parts worry and morbid curiosity and the sharp rise in under-18 viral acts inking major label deals, I reached out to child and adolescent psychiatrist Dr. Judith Fiona Joseph, M.D., M.B.A to get a more nuanced look at child fame and the lasting impact it can have on a child's psyche.
Dr. Joseph began our conversation by explaining the different classes of child fame: children born into fame versus children who attain a certain level of fame. There’s a marked difference, Joseph details, between the coping mechanisms developed by a child like North West, the daughter of Kanye West and Kim Kardashian West, and a child star who has been thrust into the spotlight. Namely, North West will begin to develop effective coping skills and manage stress early on in her life, while Matt Ox, who signed a contract with Warner Music earlier this year, Joseph explains, “may not have the coping skills, or have developed the tools to deal with this major life adjustment and may run into problems as a result.”
A source of these problems, in part, is the role social media now plays in child fame. In particular, the way social media positions a user to be in a constant state of rejection. Being able to see what all of their peers are up to 24/7 creates feelings of isolation and loneliness. “One might feel like they weren’t invited [to a party] because of some personal deficit,” Joseph explains.
Of course, adults are just as likely to be negatively affected by social media, but as Joseph stresses, children have a more significant response to rejection because it literally “activates pain centers in their brain.”
For a child star, that pain is undoubtedly magnified. Under the microscope of social media fame, a teen's already heightened fears of failure and humiliation are far more intense. These fears are supplanted by the presumed shame that comes with failure.
As social media has made the world much smaller, the impact of child fame has also extended from the artist to the fan. “The concept of social media stardom may lead more young people to believe that fame is more easily achievable than it actually is,” Joseph explains. In turn, this leads to a whole new set of complications. Unbeknownst to the Lil Pumps of the world, making fame look easy carries its own brand of irresponsibility: the fantasy of fame becomes as damning as the fame itself.
Joseph has seen these repercussions first-hand, recounting several cases in which the fantasy of fame overtook her patients:
“I’ve treated several cases of patients where [the fantasy] actually hurt them because they spent hours each day working on posting things and missed out on the real world. It can also be quite stressful to remain relevant on social media because posts can take hours of preparation and in order to maintain a following, you have to post frequently. I’ve actually treated cases of kids having breakdowns requiring hospitalizations for mental stabilization because they felt compelled to post and could not keep up with their fanbase demands.”
Dr. Joseph offers a very humanizing view of child fame, but she also confirmed my assumption that agency can only be determined on a case-by-case basis. “Some children fully understand the risks versus the benefits versus the alternatives to decisions and can make informed decisions," Joseph says, "However, there are other kids of the same age that are not capable of this.”
Being able to parse who is and is not capable, she notes, rests in the hands of parents and the adult professionals (managers, agents) who are tasked with the responsibility of oversight. Beyond understanding their children’s strengths and weaknesses, Joseph suggests parents who are interested in or are comfortable with their children entering the spotlight by signing a record contract should seek the help of experts “to determine which choices their children are capable of making independently” and what stressors they are capable of overcoming.
Parents, according to Joseph, should also play the role of cheerleader, ensuring “that the child or teen is intrinsically motivated to pursue their talents and not necessarily just extrinsically motivated by money, making friends, or feeling pressured to meet other people’s expectations.”
Subscribing to that greed-free reality, however, is painfully idealistic. Should a child and their team choose to assume the risks of fame and social media stardom, there are still things parents can do to mitigate negative consequences. For one, Joseph stresses, parents should remind their children that they love them outside the context of their fame. Though this seems obvious, in the case of many exploited child stars, the sentiment bears repeating.
Hoping to end our conversation on a high note, I asked Joseph what the fans of these artists can do to help mitigate some of the negatives of child fame. “A good rule is [to follow] the golden rule,” she attests. “Treat other people the way that you want to be treated. Just because a person is famous doesn’t make them any less of a person.”
Dr. Joseph received her bachelor’s degree in biology, from Duke University, her medical degree from Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons, and her business degree from Columbia Business School. She completed her adult psychiatry residency at Columbia University, New York Presbyterian Hospital and the New York State Psychiatric Institute. She completed her Child and Adolescent Psychiatry Fellowship at the Child Study Center at NYU Langone Medical Hospital and Bellevue Hospital.