As the star of the Disney Channel series "Sonny With a Chance," teen actress Demi Lovato plays an effervescent small-town girl who wins a national talent contest to land a starring role on a popular variety show. As the title character, Sonny copes with a jealous co-star, a dearth of fan mail and the hazards of celebrity dating, among other situations only to be encountered by a budding idol.
One facet the upbeat comedy for kids is unlikely to explore is the dark side of teen stardom. The issue nonetheless came to the fore recently with a crisis in Lovato's personal life that forced her to withdraw from a concert tour with the Jonas Brothers to seek treatment for "emotional and physical issues." People close to the 18-year-old star, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the matter, say she struggled with eating disorders and self-mutilation before her breakthrough role on the Disney Channel series.
These hazards stand to become more commonplace as a growing number of kid-focused shows put kids front and center, according to people who work with young actors.
Unlike years past, when young hopefuls had limited opportunities on prime-time family sitcoms, the media giants in recent years have created an entire industry of television networks and programs devoted to the 20 million children ages 8 to 12 who influence $43 billion in annual spending. That has been accompanied by a rise in "live action" kids shows on channels such as Disney Channel, Nickelodeon, Cartoon Network and newcomer The Hub that led to demand for child and teenage actors.
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"You're going to see more of this," said former child actor Paul Petersen, who heads A Minor Consideration, a nonprofit group that offers support for young performers. "And it's going to become more and more obvious."
Life imitates shows
Petersen isn't the only one concerned: Demi's father, Patrick Lovato, said that 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.
"I kept those emotions to myself because Dianna was so excited, I didn't want to burst anyone's bubble," Patrick Lovato said in a telephone interview from New Mexico. "But always in the back of my mind, I was concerned. Because at that young age, it's really hard. She worked 300 out of 365 days touring, and then of course when you get back into town, you've got all the promotional stuff. I'm sure she sees the things she missed out on, schoolmates and things."
Lovato's own show, as well as other tween-focused programs such as Disney Channel's "Hannah Montana" and Nickelodeon's "Big Time Rush," extol being famous. Ironically, some talent agents, child advocates and psychologists worry that real life in the spotlight is forcing kids to crack.
While declining to comment on Lovato specifically, Disney Channel spokeswoman Patti McTeague said the 24-hour media microscope can magnify existing issues for any actor, especially a teenager.
"So much of what they say and do, especially in their private lives, is chronicled and transmitted to millions of people and the Internet adds a whole new twist," McTeague said. "Nobody, nobody can live under that spotlight for very long and not have it impact them in some way. Some deal with it differently than others."
Learning to cope
Disney, like Nickelodeon, offers a "Talent 101" course that seeks to prepare young talent for the pressure that might lie ahead, such as being recognized while shopping and managing their image online. The Disney course includes a licensed clinical psychologist and addresses privacy concerns, taking care of oneself (physically and emotionally), coping strategies and security issues.
Disney Channel instituted the course after a nude photo of "High School Musical" star Vanessa Hudgens began circulating on the Internet in 2007, prompting the actress to issue a public apology.
Indeed, online gossip sites feed on the smallest details of teen celebrities' lives and strip them of privacy. And social media platforms such as Twitter and Facebook make it possible for anyone who might be jealous of a young actor's wealth, success or lifestyle to strike out with savage comments.
"In the past, superstars could live in an ivory tower. Now, they are connected 24/7 to things people want to say about them and you have people saying nasty things whenever they can," said Parry Aftab, a lawyer who specializes in cyber safety and crime. "As a teen girl, you still have the issues with body image and self-esteem, so when you add that in with Twitter and Facebook, a million people are saying you got fat last week on YouTube and you're Googling yourself, it can be horribly overwhelming."