Is the Era of the Child Star Over?

From Hannah Montana to Zendaya, we grew up with famous tweens on our screens, but kids today don't have that same representation

TV Features Industry
Is the Era of the Child Star Over?

If you ask anyone who grew up in front of a TV in the 1990s or 2000s who their favorite child star was when they were a kid, they are sure to pick someone from a massive Rolodex of answers. A self-proclaimed ‘90s kid might throw out a name like Britney Spears, Jonathan Taylor Thomas, or Macaulay Culkin. Someone born on the cusp of the millennium could pull a name from a long list of children’s programming that aired during the first decade of the 21st century—Raven-Symoné, Miley Cyrus, Keke Palmer—and a person who falls solidly in the center of Gen Z may bring up Zendaya, China Anne McClain, or Skai Jackson. 

The child star industrial complex was booming for almost three decades, giving Millennials and Generation Z tons of programming that they could see someone their age in. While recent conversations about representation have been focused (rightfully) on matters of race, disability, sexuality, and gender, there is also a conversation to be had about how we represent children in media. While it is not something we often talk about, all children are marginalized, regardless of race or class. They cannot exert any control over the world they live in no matter where they live because they are children, and that means that they are always at the mercy of adults when it comes to all matters. 

Children deserve to see themselves on screen as much as anyone else, in programming that is written specifically for them—and, for a while, they did. The Disney Channel aired anywhere between 3 to 5 child-centric sitcoms in the 2000s with that number rising to as high as 9 in the mid-to-late 2010s. Combined with the live-action programming on Disney XD and a swath of Dan Schneider-led Nickelodeon shows, the child star factory churned along. Even kids with no cable in their home could watch TV at a friend’s house, and Hannah Montana, The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, iCarly, and Victorious were just a few of the shows that were the center of children’s pop culture. 

Many of these actors started expansive careers in their teens that mirror the trajectories that members of the All-New Mickey Mouse Club shot off on. Miley Cyrus’ blonde alter ego broke onto the Billboard Hot 100 ten times while Hannah Montana was on the air and was the focus of both Hannah Montana: The Movie—a film that stars Taylor Swift pre-Grammy win and VMA incident—and a live concert movie that recouped its budget ten times over. Disney and Nickelodeon also built musical careers for Selena Gomez, Miranda Cosgrove, Demi Lovato, Jennette McCurdy, Victoria Justice, and anyone else who was a lead in a popular show or movie. At one point, all three leads of Hannah Montana were releasing music under Disney’s watch, and if you throw a dart at a wall of Disney kids who had a place on the channel anywhere from 2000 to 2017, you would probably hit someone with a single out. Disney also had a hand in boosting the careers of Justin Bieber and The Jonas Brothers by way of Radio Disney (which ceased operation in 2021), a place where clean versions of pop music played alongside Disney music from their theatrical feature films and child star prospects. Nickelodeon’s reach into the music space was far less impactful, but several songs that were produced for Big Time Rush and Victorious made their way onto the Hot 100 as well.

The music, movies, and intra-network crossovers like iParty with Victorious put all of this kid’s media on the map for children and adults (childless or not) alike. Miley Cyrus would not have been the bane of parent watch groups if kids didn’t idolize her, but it has been over a decade since the stars we all associate with children’s media have been all over cable, and no one has come to replace them with the same fervor. Looking at Disney Channel’s roster of actors after Zendaya’s departure from the network, the figures that have found significant commercial success have significantly dwindled, and the Disney kid transition to musician and DCOM star has become non-existent. Stuck in the Middle was a major job for both Jenna Ortega and Ariana Greenblatt, but it was far from either’s breakout role the way Wizards of Waverly Place was for Selena Gomez. Andi Mack introduced us to Sofia Wylie, but she found her larger audience through Disney+’s High School Musical: The Musical: The Series at the same time that Olivia Rodrigo launched herself to stardom. Sure, she was on Bizzardvark with Jake Paul, but she was well past that by the time she started on the path to where she is today.

When you peel everything back, two root causes have led to this downfall: social media and streaming services. Almost every house in the US has a TV, but not everyone has every streaming service, and kids have no financial power in their households. Disney+ had a decent offering of live-action programming for tweens that were released between 2019 and 2021, but all of those shows have ended, with only Goosebumps and Percy Jackson having futures in sight. These shows have tragically short seasons in comparison to the 25+ episodes Disney Channel fare regularly got. The lack of shows is compounded by the lack of episodes available of those shows, and the time it takes to produce new seasons leads to kids looking elsewhere for entertainment and role models. Truthfully, the cast of Percy Jackson are the only kids close to reaching the level of stardom we used to see, and they will likely stay that way because of their regular use of social media, the entertainment that the lack of traditional media drives children towards no matter how old. Family vloggers, teenage influencers, and Twitch streamers pull a lot of the attention that TV isn’t commanding. There have been many efforts to regulate what children can view online, but they are far from comprehensive, and there is another issue that comes with parents using their children for content, something that former Disney star Alyson Stoner actively lobbies against.

Before advocating for children to return to television, we must recognize that the laws currently in place are not sufficient for protecting child actors. Quiet on Set is evidence enough that the laws currently on the books are not enough to keep kids safe, and there are a plethora of stars who have come out in various ways to speak about the negative experiences they had as child actors. There are toxic sets everywhere, regardless of the ages of the actors, but children inherently lack the skills and the life experience to defend themselves. To advocate for more children to be on screen also means that their rights must be preserved while they work. 

But even in spite of it all, children deserve to have celebrities their age to look up to. The child stars of the past were icons, but they were not cared for in the way they should have been. Moving forward, if a healthy structure can be provided in the creation of media for child audiences, the successes of the past could bring about a safer and better future for children’s media. There’s a long way to go still, but with the heightened awareness of on-set misconduct and a focus on bringing kids the media they deserve, a brighter future is hopefully on the horizon. 

Kathryn Porter is a freelance writer who will talk endlessly about anything to do with entertainment given the chance. You can find her @kaechops on Twitter.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.

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