I’m a Britney Spears super-fan from way back. I remember bouncing up and down on my best friend’s floral bedspread, bellowing the lyrics to “Lucky” into a maroon hairbrush when I was just 6 years old. “Whyyyy do these bees come at night!?” I sang until my bestie corrected me. “It’s tears,” she asserted. But then, I really couldn’t imagine why Spears would have asked that question at all. All I could see was that Spears was successful and talented; she “had it all,” before she’d even turned 20. Why would these tears come at night?
As the years went on, it became more and more clear why the question was being asked, even if I didn’t yet understand what the answer would be. I was in junior high in 2007, when Spears went through her widely publicized mental health crisis. Back then, I found the tabloid photos of Spears jarring, but I couldn’t fully relate what she was experiencing to her celebrity. I remained a loyal fan — my mom remembers me defending Spears for shaving her head to my friends as a “personal choice.”
While I was still too young to understand the nuance of the situation at the time, the recent FX and New York Times documentary Framing Britney Spears gave me a chance to revisit Spears’s story. The film helped me — and a lot of people — understand better what actually led to the events of 2007.
The documentary spawned instant outrage on behalf of the singer — and many, many reaction pieces. Some praised the documentary’s framing of Spears as someone who was shamed for being in control of her sex-positive image, while others, including Tavi Gevinson’s essay for The Cut, called into question the documentary’s assertion that Spears had true agency over her image and narrative. “By suggesting she once had complete control, the documentary fuels the sense of injustice when that control is then taken away,” Gevinson writes, later adding: “But it is absurd to discuss her image from that time as though there was not an apparatus behind it.”
Gevinson, whose experience with childhood fame stemmed from her time as a tween fashion blogger who then launched the website Rookie, declined to comment for this story, but acknowledged in her piece that it’s not as simple as saying that Spears had complete control or none, that she was an autonomous performer or the puppet of the adults around her; it’s much more complicated than that. But the fact that Spears achieved notoriety at such a young age certainly dilutes the autonomy she had over her career, which was also, always, tied up with her personal life. And while conversations around who’s responsible for the wellbeing of young celebrities tend to focus on parents and paparazzi, media and managers, there’s another group that can be considered complicit: the audience.
Mara Wilson, an actress and writer who achieved fame as a child for playing Matilda in the eponymous movie and who wrote an op-ed for the New York Times about Framing Britney Spears, has been especially vocal on this subject. “We need to think about the way we objectify these people and take responsibility for that,” Wilson tells Refinery29. “People say, ‘Hollywood does this, Hollywood does that.’ And I think that it's totally fine and acceptable to critique Hollywood and its treatment. But I think that people need to remember that what Hollywood is doing is giving people what it thinks they want.”
Spears, whose publicist hasn’t returned Refinery29’s request for comment, is far from the only example of a child star who went on to openly struggle with mental health. In the last decade or so, Lindsay Lohan, Amanda Bynes, Miley Cyrus, and Justin Bieber have all gone through similar journeys — early fame followed by a heavily publicized period of what the media framed as “acting out.” But there’s a decades-long history of this type of narrative. From Judy Garland to ‘70s sitcom star Danny Bonaduce to youngest-ever-Oscar-winner Tatum O’Neal, countless young stars dealt with mental health challenges and addiction after achieving fame in their formative years.
Famous or precocious children — which can include a mega-star like Bieber or a more niche celeb like Gevinson — face constant attention, industry pressures, and, often, financial stress, all while they’re emotionally immature, says Chris Smith, LCSW, a social work supervisor for Looking Ahead, a program which helps young performers and their families navigate the entertainment industry.
“My research shows that fame is experienced like an impact, like a car crash,” says Donna Rockwell, PhD, psychologist and celebrity mental health coach, who’s published research on the dynamics of fame and mental health. “Life becomes so different after the spotlight finds you. I always say that it would take an extraordinarily grounded human being to not be pushed off one’s center by the experience of celebrity. So, is it that Britney Spears had mental health issues, or is the bright light of fame really too much for anyone to withstand — especially as a child star?”
Paul Petersen is a former child star and the founder of A Minor Consideration, an organization that works to improve working conditions for young actors. He says that of the 1,000 or so “showbiz kids” he’s worked with, only about one-third of them have gotten through a childhood of fame without facing mental health challenges. Those kids tend to have conscientious parents who protected their children from media, fans, and criticism.
Still, Wilson says celebrity affected her despite her parents’ best efforts to shield her. “There’s an image of child actors as super spoiled brats, super entitled,” Wilson says. “That wasn’t my experience. My experience is that a lot of us tend to be people pleasers. And that can lead to us doing things that aren’t the best ideas for us, or saying yes to things that we don’t feel comfortable with.”
Wilson wasn’t able to set boundaries on her own when reporters began asking her if she had a boyfriend; she was six years old at the time. She also wasn’t equipped to give answers when they questioned her about Hugh Grant getting arrested for soliciting a prostitute, or wondered who she thought the sexiest actor was. When a tabloid called her a “brat” in print, she didn’t have the perspective not to take it to heart.
Wilson — who's introducing Turner Classic Movies new series, "Growing Up on Screen," this month — says the transition from child to young adult was a particularly difficult one to make under the public eye. Another complicating factor was that kids at school began to poke fun at her for acting in only “kids movies,” which her parents purposefully took her to auditions for so she wouldn’t be sexualized in the media (spoiler alert: it happened anyway). Moving on from these kinds of roles wasn’t so simple. “When kids are young they’ll play with Barbie dolls and then when they get a little older, they’ll throw them away, and take off their heads, draw on them, cut their hair, they’ll destroy them,” Wilson says. “And I felt that was happening to me, too. And it’s worth noting there was even a Matilda doll that looked just like me. Britney Spears had that, too.”
It would be doing current and future child stars a disservice to say that they’ll all fail or wind up “damaged” in some way, because it’s not true, Wilson says. There have been some real strides for showbiz kids in the past few decades. Talking about mental health is more normalized today than it was even 15 years ago. Organizations like A Minor Consideration and Looking Ahead are working to make things better for young performers, starting with legislation and getting information about protecting kids to parents and managers.
But that means there’s also more of a responsibility for us, the fans, to change our relationship with young stars too, says Petersen. “We’re not getting any better,” he says. “In fact, with the rise of the internet and social media, it’s gotten worse. The absence of privacy is a critical problem during childhood.”
We feel “allowed” to say things to or about young celebrities that we’d never dream of saying to or about young people in any other context, in part because we forget they’re real people. We often dehumanize celebrities, no matter their age, explains Dana Dorfman, PhD, psychotherapist and co-host of the podcast 2 Moms on the Couch.
“Child stars actually need the public to care more about them,” Dr. Rockwell says. “To appreciate the fact that they are children, so they can have a somewhat normal emotional development. If we had a kinder society and we started seeing all child stars as our own children, maybe we’d think twice before we overcrowd them when we see them on the street or comment something snarky on their Instagram posts.”
Commenting on a child’s appearance — even positively — is especially damaging, Smith says: “It tells these kids, ‘My worth is tied to my appearance.’” Instead, if you have to comment at all, he suggests focusing on praising their abilities. And if you can’t say anything nice… I’ll assume you watched Bambi and know where this sentence is going.
The more we can do to humanize young celebrities, the better: Dr. Dorfman recommends remembering what you were like at that age before commenting on a star’s behavior. Another tip: teach kids from the get-go to offer kindness to celebrities, as well as everyone around them.
And, sometimes, the best thing to do is look away. We don’t have to seek out information about a child or young adult who is clearly going through a personal struggle, whether that means not following gossip Instagram accounts or not buying a certain tabloid. “Maybe the best way to be compassionate is not to consume,” notes David Giles, PhD, a reader in the psychology department at the University of Winchester who studies celebrity and media.
The truth is, we could stand to do better by our child stars, and take ownership of our individual interactions and snide comments about them, both for the sake of the celebrities and the kids around us who are watching us pass judgement.
“It would be lovely if we could learn from Britney Spears’s pain,” Dr. Rockwell says. “We should treat all children as children, not as adults. Celebrities included.”