As reality television programs such as Supernanny, Jon and Kate Plus 8, and Trading Spouses have multiplied, so have the number of children appearing in reality television. Recent publicity surrounding these shows, however, has prompted questions about the welfare of “reality children” and the motives of their parents. For example, last year, the Pennsylvania Department of Labor investigated complaints that the Gosselin children were working illegally; Richard Heene made his son ( “Balloon Boy”) the lynchpin of his scheme to obtain a reality TV show; And a petition to appoint a guardian for the Suleman octuplets accused their mother of using them to leverage her own opportunities.
Unfortunately, history shows that the prospect of money and fame can distract parents from their child’s best interest, leaving children to be exploited. Consequently, child advocates and the entertainment media alike have begun to consider whether the legal system provides any protection for these children, specifically, whether these children and the television programs that include them are subject to federal child labor laws.
This article considers whether the FLSA’s prohibition against oppressive child labor applies to children participating on reality TV. After an introduction to reality television and its participants, the article recounts the risks and exploitation that children on reality television face. It then provides an overview of the Fair Labor Standards Act, focusing on the critical concepts of “work” and “employment,” as well as the FLSA’s Child Labor provisions and the “Shirley Temple Act” exemptions, which apply to child actors and performers. Next, the article analyzes whether reality television participation constitutes “work” or “employment.” Ultimately, this article concludes that, while employing a child in oppressive child labor amounts to exploitation, exploiting a child through reality television does not constitute the oppressive child labor forbidden by the FLSA.