Why We Should Treat Our Child Stars Like British Royalty

God save the teens! Image: Emmanuel Hapsis

A few weeks ago, footage emerged of Justin Bieber trying and failing to eat in peace, before being chased up the street by screaming fans. Frustrated, Bieber ultimately told the crowd to stop "acting like animals." This scene sounds like just another incident of Bieber behaving badly, but watching it, you can’t help but sympathize with how impossible normality is for this 23-year-old, who is now in his seventh year of mega-stardom.

It’s difficult to make most people care about the plight of young, beautiful, rich, famous people. The pervasive attitude is that so many perks come with fame and fortune that celebrities should just suck up the bad with the good, and quit acting like their lives are hard; after all, they do have all of those millions to ease the pain of media scrutiny and subsequent isolation. “So, you can’t eat a sandwich in peace,” we, the public, shrug. “Can’t your butler just make you one?”

Not only do we find it hard to throw much sympathy the way of people who found fame in their teens, but we tend to revel in any misery they experience. It’s not difficult to think of a multitude of young celebrities, going back decades, whose meltdowns have been exploited by the media, and ruthlessly mocked by the public (Britney, Lindsay, Corey -- both Haim and Feldman). Even back in the 1980s, instead of wondering what led Drew Barrymore to start doing cocaine at the age of 12, the world just called her a “wild child” for the next decade instead.

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When young stars become painfully image-focused in the face of all the press scrutiny -- something we witness more and more, thanks to social media -- we mostly dismiss that focus as arrogance and self-obsession, rather than questioning what got them to that point in the first place. A prime example of this is Kylie Jenner -- a young woman dealing with the double whammy of being famous since she was 10, and part of one of the most image-conscious families in history.

In 2013, Jenner told US Weekly: “I don’t remember how it was before I was famous.” On Season 12 of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, Jenner tells big sister Kim: “I feel like I’ve had anxiety for too long. I feel too much, I care too much, I read too much. Some people are born for this life and some people aren’t. I just know I’m not supposed to be famous.”

It is impossible to escape the irony of her stating this in front of E! television cameras, but the camera presence has been reality for almost half of her life. It’s not hard to see where the contradiction emerges. In the same season, Kylie’s sister Kendall -- part of the show since age 12 -- is seen struggling with debilitating panic attacks, while her mother, Kris Jenner, tells her she can't miss any "commitments."

The first argument against caring about these famous kids is undoubtedly: if you don’t like the business, why don’t you quit? But truthfully, in the internet age, once you’re mega-famous, you’re famous forever. If Kylie and Kendall Jenner decided to quit their careers and go into hiding, they would be mocked as brutally as their brother Rob Kardashian has been for doing the same thing. Similarly, if Justin Bieber decided to give it all up and retire now, he would be called a has-been for the rest of his life, and probably still be subject to the same amount of press attention. These kids became famous before they knew what that would entail, and now they're stuck in it.

The second argument is: if you don’t want to deal with paparazzi and public scrutiny, why don’t you just avoid going out in public? This, frankly, is an entirely unreasonable request to make of any young person -- unless the intention is to ensure they will one day develop mental health issues. Aside from anything else, think about what your teen years would’ve been like on permanent house arrest -- miserable, even if you'd had millions sitting in the bank.

So you might assume there is no way around this, that famous people are famous, no matter what their age, and the free press is the free press and must remain unrestricted at all costs. But, in late 1997, the British media (and public) offered up an extraordinary example on how to tackle these issues.

Following the death of Princess Diana on August 31, 1997, as she was pursued by paparazzi on motorcycles through the streets of Paris, the U.K. went into what can only be described as a full-on meltdown. In the midst of nationwide grief and finger-pointing, Britain began panicking that Diana’s 15-year-old son William -- second in line to the throne, after his father, Charles -- might meet the same fate as his mother if something wasn’t done to protect him from the relentless media scrutiny.

In the midst of the chaos, the Press Complaints Commission got together with newspaper and tabloid editors across the U.K. to formulate new standards for self-regulation. The PCC updated its Code of Conduct, and every editor in the country agreed to leave Princes William, and 12-year-old Harry, alone until adulthood. Unless the brothers were making official, Palace-ordained, public appearances, no one would print photos of, or stories about, the boys.

The most remarkable thing about this hastily-made agreement was that every publication in Britain actually honored its word. Not only did Prince William get through high school in relative peace, he was also subject to little scrutiny at St. Andrew’s University, where he lived in student housing, met his future wife (the first “commoner” to marry a throne-eligible prince in 350 years), and paid regular visits to the local supermarket, a lifestyle previously unheard of for a future king. After graduation, the prince continued to live in relative normalcy, residing in a small Welsh village, spending time with the locals, and, by all accounts, living as his neighbors did.

One of the most interesting side effects of the media protection granted to the princes was that, during their formative years, both William and Harry found they could carry on normal lives without the public bothering them. They were not mobbed in the street, they were not asked for selfies, they were not treated differently by their classmates. When the media agreed to leave the brothers alone, the public followed suit without being asked.

With Prince William’s marriage to Kate Middleton (now known as the Duchess of Cambridge), press coverage started in earnest. When Harry got naked in a Las Vegas hotel room in front of camera phones, the floodgates opened for him too. But, by the time both events occurred, the brothers were both comfortably into adulthood. Not only did the Princes avoid the mental strain of constant surveillance in their formative years, Britain ended up with the first royals to ever be vaguely relatable.

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Perhaps if the paparazzi and media could agree to similar rules of engagement (press tours and interviews only), we might end up with the first generation of American child stars to reach adulthood without collapsing into addiction, self-obsession, or public meltdowns. If we as a nation are happy to have laws to protect non-famous children from sex, alcohol, tobacco, and hard labor, why are we so unwilling to protect the famous ones?

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