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Protecting Child Actors: A Need for Effective State Legislation Protecting Our Nation’s Youth


Recently, Max released a four-part documentary titled Quiet on Set: The Dark Side of Kids TV (“Quiet on Set”) highlighting some of network television’s biggest failures.[1] Within this documentary, Dan Schneider, one of Nickelodeon’s most successful producers, faced criticism for his treatment of child actors.[2] In some cases, Mr. Schneider asked children to perform skits with material “with what now looks like startlingly crass sexual innuendo[s].”[3] Some of these unsettling skits included a sixteen-year-old Ariana Grande pretending to milk a potato with her hands and underage performers being trotted around the television set in “bikinis or leotards” with water being squirted on their faces.[4] Responding to these accusations of inappropriate and abusive behavior, Mr. Schneider acknowledged his embarrassment and regret offering “some people” an apology.[5]

 

However, the most disturbing part of this documentary is Brian Peck. Mr. Peck was accused of physically and sexually abusing a minor.[6] Quiet on Set revealed that this minor was Drake Bell, a popular actor who made appearances on The Amanda Show and, perhaps most notably, Drake & Josh.[7] Episode three of Quiet on Set revealed Mr. Peck’s widely inappropriate and despicable behavior.[8] When asked about the extent of the abuse, Mr. Bell said the following:

 

The abuse was extensive and it got pretty brutal,  . . . I really don't know how to elaborate on that on camera. Why don’t you think of the worst stuff that someone could do to somebody as a sexual assault, and that’ll answer your question. I don’t know how else to put it.[9]

 

Mr. Peck was later arrested on eleven charges including “a lewd act upon a child” and “sodomy of a person under 16” and was sentenced to sixteen months in prison;[10] what some may think is a lenient sentence considering the nature of his charges. One would imagine that his career behind the camera would be forever tarnished, especially in shows starring child actors. Where did he go next? He was hired by Disney on the live-action series, The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, but was hired only for voiceover work.[11] This series starred Dylan and Cole Sprouse who, at the time, were child actors.[12]

 

Quiet on Set begs the question, what laws are in place to protect child actors today? The starting point is the Fair Labor Standards Act, 29 U.S.C. 212(c), which states, in part, that “[n]o employer shall employ any oppressive child labor in commerce or in the production of goods for commerce or in any enterprise engaged in commerce or in the production of goods for commerce.”[13] Outside of federal law, thirty-seven states “regulate child entertainment” in some manner while seventeen states do not.[14] As with most Supremacy Clause issues, state laws that are less effective than the federal law at regulating child entertainment will be preempted by the federal law.[15] 

 

Unfortunately, child actors are still very much at risk. The Wage and Hour Division, a division of the United States Department of Labor that “enforces federal minimum wage, overtime pay, . . . and child labor requirements of the Fair Labor Standards Act,”[16] found startling increases in child labor law violations.[17] In 2013, there were 1,393 cases of minors employed in violation of child labor laws.[18] In 2023, that number was 5,792 minors employed in violation of child labor laws.[19] Those violations have resulted in $8,039,728 in child labor civil money penalties as of 2023.[20]

 

One way to possibly solve this crisis is for states to enact legislation that provides more thorough schemes for protecting child actors. For seventeen particular states, that job would be quite simple considering that they do not presently regulate child entertainment.[21] One potentially workable model is California which sets out different restrictions based on an age-tiered system, with stricter requirements for younger children.[22] Because these laws would be more restrictive than 29 U.S.C. 212(c), they would not be preempted.[23]

 

Hopefully, in the very near future, child actors will never have to experience those who seek to take advantage of them, financially or physically. They deserve better.

 



[1] Quiet on Set: The Dark Side of Kids TV, MAX (2024).

[2] Id.

[3] Jack Seale, Quiet on Set: The Dark Side of Kids TV review – how on earth was this stuff ever broadcast?, The Guardian (Mar. 25, 2024, 12:55 PM), https://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2024/mar/25/quiet-on-set-the-dark-side-of-kids-tv-review-how-on-earth-was-this-stuff-ever-broadcast.

[4] Id.

[5] Christopher Brito, Former Nickelodeon producer Dan Schneider responds to ‘Quiet on Set’ accusations, CBS News (Mar. 21, 2024, 11:24 AM), https://www.cbsnews.com/news/dan-schneider-apology-quiet-on-set-documentary-nickelodeon/.

[6] Emily Longeretta, Drake Bell Details Sexual Assault and ‘Extensive’ Abuse at 15 by Brian Peck, Explains ‘Self-Destructive Behavior’ That Followed, Variety (Mar. 13, 2024, 5:30 PM), https://variety.com/2024/tv/news/drake-bell-sexual-assault-brian-peck-documentary-1235934302/.

[7] See supra note 1; see also Angeline Bernabe & Stephen Iervolino, Former Nickelodeon co-stars Josh Peck, Nancy Sullivan respond to Drake Bell's ‘Quiet on Set’ revelations, ABC News (Mar. 22, 2024, 9:54 AM), https://abcnews.go.com/GMA/Culture/former-nickelodeon-stars-josh-peck-nancy-sullivan-respond/story?id=108370004 (explaining that Josh Peck, who starred as Josh in Drake and Josh, is not related to Brian Peck).   

[8] See supra note 1, The Darkest Secret.

[9] Eric Deggans, ‘Quiet on Set’ explores allegations of abuse, toxic behavior at Nickelodeon, NPR (Mar. 20, 2024, 1:37 PM), https://www.npr.org/2024/03/16/1238843676/quiet-on-set-nickelodeon.

[10] Lea Veloso, Brian Peck Charges: A Full Rundown Of The 11 Crimes He Was Accused Of & His Sentence, stylecaster (Mar. 19, 2024, 12:45 PM), https://stylecaster.com/lists/brian-peck-charges/brian-peck-charges/.

[11] Chloe James, Nickelodeon Sex Offender Hired (And Fired) By Disney Channel, ITM (Mar. 22, 2024), https://insidethemagic.net/2024/03/brian-peck-disney-channel-nickelodeon-cj1/.

[12] Id.

[13] 29 U.S.C. § 212(c).

[14] Child Entertainment Laws as of January 1, 2023, U.S. Dep’t of Lab. Wage & Hour Div., https://www.dol.gov/agencies/whd/state/child-labor/entertainment (last visited Mar. 26, 2024).

[15] Id.

[17] Child Labor Enforcement: Keeping Young Workers Safe, U.S. Dep’t of Lab. Wage & Hour Div., https://www.dol.gov/agencies/whd/data/child-labor (last visited Mar. 26, 2024).

[18] Child Labor, U.S. Dep’t of Lab. Wage & Hour Div., https://www.dol.gov/agencies/whd/data/charts/child-labor (last visited Mar. 26, 2024).

[19] Id.

[20] Id.

[21] See supra note 14.

[22] See Summary Chart, State of Cal. Dep’t of Indus. Rels., https://www.dir.ca.gov/dlse/MinorsSummaryCharts.pdf (last visited Mar. 25, 2024).

[23] See supra note 14.

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