Buffer the Children?

By Gretchen Cook
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 5, 2005

An investigator questions a 5-year-old boy about a middle-aged man charged with sexually abusing him.

"What were you and Joseph playing?" the investigator asks.

"Doctor," responds the boy.

"And where did Joseph touch you?"

"On my private parts."

The little boy is actually an actor playing a molestation victim in a trial reenactment for a Discovery Channel documentary called "Guilty or Innocent?," which aired earlier this year.

Another actor of about the same age repeatedly grabs at the breasts of his babysitter on the CBS sitcom "King of Queens." Then there's Dakota Fanning, who stars in this summer's "War of the Worlds" remake and who, at 11, has starred in a number of adult-themed movies, including "Man on Fire," in which she plays a kidnap victim, and this year's "Hide and Seek," where her lines included saying how her mother "slit her wrists with a razor." The young actress has said in interviews that she was allowed to watch the latter film in its entirety.

Meanwhile, in the 2004 movie "Birth," a 10-year-old boy gets into a bathtub naked with Nicole Kidman. French filmmaker Catherine Breillat's "Anatomy of Hell" has three young boys watch a little girl take off her underwear. And on CNN, four children do voice-over translations of young tsunami victims' recalling their harrowing experiences.

Child actors increasingly star in what the industry calls "risky" roles; sexual, violent or traumatic parts most parents wouldn't even let their kids watch -- let alone play. Psychologist Jenn Berman treats more and more of them in her Beverly Hills office and sees the heavy emotional toll such roles can take. "These children get exposed to things they're really not ready for," says Berman, who describes their symptoms as ranging from nightmares to premature sexual activity and severe separation anxiety. She says some young performers get terribly confused, forcing parents into discussions they're not ready for either. "One child played out a rape scene and was really traumatized by it. [Rape] was something she wasn't even aware of before," says Berman.

Concerns that show business exploits children for adult entertainment are nothing new. But they usually focus on long work hours and money-grubbing stage parents -- as in Bravo's sensational "Show Biz Moms and Dads." Little attention, however, has been paid to the potentially damaging effects of acting in risky roles. There was the infamous director who "motivated" 9-year-old actor Jackie Cooper to cry in a film by threatening to shoot his dog. And a few eyebrows were raised when Martin Scorsese cast Jodie Foster as a 12-year-old prostitute in 1976's "Taxi Driver." But Paul Petersen, who runs the child actor advocacy group A Minor Consideration, says the number and the risky nature of such roles have escalated.

"The whole threshold within our culture of what we expect of children has lowered dramatically," says Petersen, a former child actor best known for his role as the son on the "Donna Reed Show." He worries that "great damage is being done," not only by the roles but also from the frequent teasing these kids get on the playground, especially if there is nudity involved.

Petersen says the damage can last well into adulthood, resulting in addictions and emotional breakdowns. "As an advocate, I want to know what kind of protections before, during and after production are being taken," he says.

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