NEW YORK (Reuters) - Hollywood abounds with child stars whose lives went off the rails but the boom in reality TV raises new ethical questions that have come to a head in the case of Jon and Kate Gosselin and their eight children.
U.S. celebrity magazines, blogs and tabloids are in a frenzy about the new series of reality show "Jon & Kate Plus 8," in which the parents of sextuplets and twins appear to be barely speaking to each other and contemplating divorce.
The season premiere on Monday, when both parents brushed off rumors of infidelity, drew in nearly 10 million people.
The episode was ostensibly about a fifth birthday party for the sextuplets, but that was overshadowed by the drama of the parents' disintegrating marriage. Kate dabbed away tears as she said parents of multiples have higher divorce rates.
Jon complained about the paparazzi who follow the family everywhere and said he "might as well be in prison."
The show is one of several, such as "Table for 12," about large families on Discovery's cable network TLC, which specializes in reality television -- famously cheap to make.
Recent viewer feedback on web sites has tended toward vitriolic attacks on the parents, especially Kate.
On Wednesday, her brother and sister-in-law, Kevin and Jodi Kreider, appeared on CBS News' "The Early Show" to appeal to the couple to stop exploiting their children.
"They're being viewed as a commodity," Kevin Kreider said.
Jodi Kreider said the children were aware of the cameras and uncomfortable having them present on every vacation.
"Kids have bad times, bad moments, they cry, and having the camera zoom in on a crying child... this should not be a form of entertainment," she said.
TLC did not respond to a request for comment, but a statement quoted in The New York Times said ratings were growing due to "interest in these real-life issues."
"We will continue to air as the interest continues, and the family wants to do it," the TLC statement said.
Michael Brody, media chairman of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry, said while he had not met the family, the treatment of the children may amount to abuse.
"Look at what has happened to all these child stars," Brody said. "Most of these people are in rehab or they're involved in child abuse, it's horrendous."
The Gosselins have said they are motivated by the need to feed and educate the children. The New York Times cited reports the parents are paid $25,000 to $50,000 an episode.
Paul Petersen, a former child star on "The Donna Reed Show" said childhood and adolescence were hard enough without fame.
"Where are those 10 million viewers going to be in 10 years when these kids have a train wreck?" Petersen said.
Petersen, founder of "A Minor Consideration" that campaigns for children in entertainment, said there was a history of exploiting multiples such as the Dionne quintuplets, born in Canada in the 1930s and displayed as a tourist attraction.
From Drew Barrymore to Michael Jackson, child stars have again and again struggled to deal with early fame.
Reality television brings even more scrutiny to a child, even on less controversial shows such as "Tori & Dean: Home Sweet Hollywood." As the New York's Daily News noted, actress Tori Spelling is at best storing up embarrassment for her child when she discusses her daughter's dirty diapers on camera.
"While their parents opt to air their every move on TV, the tots have no choice in how they're portrayed," the paper said.
The latest babies set for a life on the small screen are the octuplets born in January to California mother Nadya Suleman, who has said she will do a documentary about them.
"The entertainment business is vast and powerful," Patersen said. "Somebody has to stand up to them and say, 'You can't do this to children any more.'"