“Matilda” star Mara Wilson learned early on that looking herself up online was a mistake. She wasn’t yet a teenager the first time she searched for her name and found sites that falsely promised nude photos of her, not to mention people discussing her body in sickening detail. Later, she found images of her feet floating around cyberspace, alongside those of other young actors.
“I actually came to laugh it off,” Wilson, now 30, said over the phone recently. “And it’s really sad, when you’re 14 or 15, that you’re laughing off that you’re on a foot fetish website.”
Wilson made the journey from child star to stable adult with relative ease, but that path is littered with cautionary tales. Kids in Hollywood have always faced dangers, and they historically came from within the industry. Just think of Judy Garland’s tales of being groped and harassed by a power player like Louis B. Mayer.
But the challenges for similar kids today are shifting and broadening with the rise of the internet and the popularity of social media. Suddenly child stars are being bombarded both with praise and criticism from the media, blogs and anonymous strangers.
There’s no real consensus on how to talk about child actors. When it comes to a president’s young son or daughter the expectations are clearer: The best rule of thumb is to say nothing at all—or risk the consequences. When the Daily Caller posted a story poking fun at Barron Trump’s wardrobe choices, the publication faced the wrath of Chelsea Clinton, whose tweet urging people to leave the 11-year-old alone was liked more than 72,000 times. And “Saturday Night Live’s” Katie Rich was suspended after she posted a widely criticized joke about the first son on social media.
But child stars don’t have those kinds of culturally accepted protections, so they’re often treated like adults. The problem with that line of thinking is coming into focus with the kids from Netflix’s hit series “Stranger Things.” Thirteen-year-old Millie Bobby Brown’s wardrobe choices, for example, were endlessly and sometimes uncomfortably scrutinized during the press tour for the show’s second season. When a former NBCUniversal executive tweeted a red carpet photo of Brown in a leather dress with the caption, “Millie Bobby Brown just grew up in front of our eyes,” Wilson, among others, hit back, accusing him of sexualizing a young girl.
“A 13-year-old’s body is never your business unless you are that 13-year-old girl,” Wilson said in an interview. “I don’t understand why we don’t see it as off limits. It would be creepy if you were to talk about a 13-year-old girl down the street.”
It would, but there’s a double-standard for youngsters in the public eye, and boys aren’t immune. Just look at the 27-year-old model who suggested, via Instagram, that then-14-year-old “Stranger Things” star Finn Wolfhard “hit me up in four years.” Meanwhile, fans have publicly pined for a romantic relationship between the actor and Brown, posting photoshopped art of the pair together. And Wolfhard, whose popularity has grown even more since he starred in “It” over the summer, was attacked on Twitter by people who called him “rude” because he didn’t stop to greet fans and sign autographs when a crowd assembled outside of his hotel.
His “Stranger Things” co-star Shannon Purser came to his defense, as did “Game of Thrones” star Sophie Turner, who also came of age in the limelight. Those complaining, including grown adults, clearly believe that Wolfhard owed them something.
Before the internet was as big, it was easier to shield a child actor from everything. Wilson’s parents and agent used to go through her fan mail and pick out the particularly weird stuff so she wouldn’t have to read it, which worked—for the most part.
“But that doesn’t mean they can protect you from everything,” she said. “And that’s something that’s even more true with the advent of social media, which has democratized everything in a wonderful way, but also in a dangerous way.”
These days movie and television contracts might even stipulate social media activity as part of a publicity commitment, and studio teachers—the people who protect and advocate for children on sets—are worried about what that means. Sometimes, with the especially young, a parent or employee will do the posting. But not always.
“So they’re doing that sometimes without supervision,” said studio teacher Sharon Sacks. “I think that’s the next big thing that has to be monitored.”
Sacks has worked closely with Ariel Winter, along with the other child stars on “Modern Family,” for the past nine years, which means she has had a front-row seat to the struggles that come with growing up both in the public eye and online. Winter told the Hollywood Reporter that before she was a teenager, strangers were posting that she was “a fat slut” and “a whore.” For a while, she decided to change her appearance in the hopes it would shield her from criticism.
“I was like, ‘Maybe I’m going to lose some weight, dye my hair, change how I dress. ... Maybe I’m doing something wrong.’ But it didn’t help,” she said. “I actually got more hate by trying to change.”
It’s not just trolls on the internet who are using grown-up language to discuss young stars. It happens in the media and other more well-established forums. Brown routinely shows up on Tom + Lorenzo, the take-no-prisoners fashion site, where the writers skewer the likes of Gal Gadot, 32, and Jessica Chastain, 40. TMZ peppers Wolfhard with questions about kissing Brown for the camera. During a panel at San Diego Comic-Con, comedian Patton Oswalt introduced Wolfhard as the “actor born with the greatest porn name ever.”
Some will argue that any child actor—unlike the president’s son—signed up for this. And they have a point: If a kid wants to be famous, then he has to take the bad with the good. But that’s simplifying a situation that can often be murky.
Children in general don’t have much agency, but child stars are especially strapped with expectations—from parents and producers, from agents and fans.
“Children are not really seen as children in show business, they’ve always been seen as a commodity, a worker: ‘We pay you all this money, we expect you to behave like an adult,’” said Julie Stevens, a director and former child actor who has worked as a studio teacher since the 1990s. Meanwhile, some parents “just close their eyes and their ears because they don’t want to ruin an opportunity for their child. Or maybe their child’s the breadwinner for the family—who knows?”
Money makes the issue inherently more complicated. Should anyone feel badly for a kid that’s raking it in on a hit show? These days, certain states, including California and Louisiana, require 15 percent of a minor’s income be deposited into a trust that can’t be touched until the actor turns 18. But parents have control of the remainder of that salary, which means it isn’t uncommon for a young star to reach adulthood and find that they don’t have the money they thought they did.
Stevens says she knows former child stars whose parents didn’t even bother to file income taxes on their salaries.
“So when they turned 18, the IRS came after them and took anything they had, which wasn’t much because their parents spent most of their money,” she said. “They had to settle and hire lawyers. It was a horrible mess for a lot of them.”
And parents can often be the driving force behind their kids’ careers in the first place. Stevens once had to call social services on a mother who forced her daughter to work on a television show during the day, even though she was sick, before taking her to the Santa Monica promenade in the evening to busk for change. The last she heard, the girl was starring in a major movie.
Child actors today have to navigate these potential issues while dealing with inevitable online chatter—but, of course, it’s not all critical. Some of it is the opposite. Wolfhard and Brown’s tweets often get near worshipful responses from fans. But that comes with its own risks.
“It’s hard for an adult to adjust to the business, but being a kid and getting all this adulation from adults, that’s very addicting,” Sacks said. “I think the best thing we can do is try to help them learn that this isn’t life.”
Long before Twitter and Facebook, Danny Tamberelli—one of the stars of “The Adventures of Pete & Pete”—remembers thinking how it was both flattering and strange when fans used to come to his shooting locations and give him gifts. The attention was nice, but he’s glad now, at 35, that his parents kept him grounded; they even forced him to get a summer job at a local bagel shop to “learn the value of a dollar.” These days he’s a musician, stand-up comic and he hosts a podcast with his “Pete & Pete” co-star Michael Maronna.
He feels he has to be on Twitter, Instagram and other platforms for publicity reasons, but he’s glad those sites weren’t around when he was on a hit show. These days he still gets “weird, creepy videos, sometimes from fans.”
During a convention recently, he met some of the “Stranger Things” kids and was struck by their need to “create content” by shooting fun videos to feed their fan base.
“And there’s something about that that makes me feel sad,” he said, even though he assumes the children enjoy doing it. “I don’t think they should have to be worrying about that. At 12, 13, 14, they should be worrying about themselves and having fun.”
It’s just another way that the Internet is forcing child actors to grow up long before a normal kid would have to.
“I don’t think kids should have the responsibility of creating yourself and creating your brand,” he said. “It’s an extra way for kids who grow up in this business to go down a bad path and be disconnected from reality, because social media is whitewashing everybody’s true selves with their perfect Instagram lives.”