'American Idol' lowers age limit: what is too young for TV?

'American Idol,' the Fox talent reality show, will now accept contestants as young as 15. Sports and parenting watchdogs caution about the glare of the global spotlight at too young an age.

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    American Idol will begin accepting contestants as young as 15, Fox announced Monday. Thousands of would-be stars line up outside the American Airlines Arena before dawn in August, 2007 to audition for American Idol.
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Expect to see a few more moms and dads at the “American Idol” July audition in Tennessee now that the Fox talent show has lowered its entry age from 16 to 15 – below the age for a US driver’s license.

But while parents actually may have to accompany their tender teens to the audition, the show’s move begs the larger questions raised by the growing push for ever-younger talent on TV and the Internet, say media watchdogs, experts, and talent consultants: How young is too young for the global spotlight? What, if anything, should be done? And by whom?

“What’s the rush?” says former child star Paul Petersen, founder of the child advocacy group “A Minor Consideration.” “Have we completely lost sight of the difference between children and adults?” He suggests that as a culture, the US needs to take a “step back from the brink.” He points out that adults have a hard enough time handling rejection and criticism, but children are not prepared for it, especially on the swift and global stage we now have.

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Beyond that, he says, the self-consciousness and unrealistic expectations that come with early fame and that can lead to later self-destructive behavior are “devastating and much more pronounced with children.” His advice for parents of young prodigies: let them graduate from high school – at minimum – and college, if possible.

“If they’re really that good, they can only benefit from training and maturing away from the public glare,” Mr. Petersen says.

Young boys experience an even more particular challenge, points out media scholar and sociologist Al Martin, because their appeal may be based on a pre-pubescent childishness that will evaporate when they mature.

“These boys then face the problem of losing their entire fan base who can’t or won’t accept them as men,” he says. Parents have an obligation to set the boundaries, he says, pointing out that our growing national obsession with youth has given rise to a generation that lives “in a celebrity bubble that allows the world to be their oyster.” Celebrities as role models only accelerate this detachment from their own world and real accomplishments, he adds.

Children exposed to celebrity also lose the ability to learn from failure away from the spotlight, says University of Texas at Arlington sociologist Ben Agger, author of “Fast Families: Virtual Children.” This can have a devastating impact later in life, he says, and offers Tiger Woods, whose media appearances began at age 3, as evidence. “Today’s celebrity is short-lived,” he says, adding that children need the benefit of as much maturing away from the spotlight as they can get. [Editor's note: The original version misstated the name of the Texas university where Mr. Agger works.]

Child actors have long been “sacrifices on our entertainment altar,” says Sherry Hamby, professor of psychology at Sewanee: The University of the South in Tennessee. The twin siren calls of fame and money are proving harder than ever for parents to resist with today's easy access, she says.

The rise of reality television as well as the Internet brings new pressure to attract attention. “The Sunderland family, like the Heenes and Jon and Kate before them, are really not that different from the parents that groom their children for careers as child actors or models,” she says, adding, “they are all exploitative, and the only thing that is really different is that they are moving that exploitation into the popular new realm.”

Ms. Hamby suggests that new attention needs to be paid to boundaries that will prevent further exploitation, adding that arranging for tutors, chaperones, and more restrictive labor laws is not enough. Great Britain, for example, has strict prohibitions against the photographing and paparazzi pursuit of minor-age celebrities. The child actors in the “Harry Potter” films for example, had some years of protection before they experienced the full force of fame, she adds.

While external rules are important, encouraging internal “insight” may be most useful for the young performer, says sports psychology consultant Garret Kramer of Inner Sports, an athletics coaching firm. “Our culture often tends to shroud the clear thinking of our youngsters,” he says, adding “ and if they don’t recall this innate wisdom that we all possess, they will trip. Again, we must remember that it is never the outside circumstance, it is the individual that steers the ship. If a youngster understands and holds him or herself accountable to this understanding, they will prosper; if not, they will succumb to the craziness.”

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