Growing up too soon in media age

By Linh Do   June 18, 2020 | 11:08 pm PT
Growing up too soon in media age
A contestant performs in a show of "Kids Dancing". Photo courtesy of "Buoc Nhay Hoan Vu Nhi" Facebook Page.
From competing in reality shows to starting training too early for future careers, children are increasingly being dragged into an adult world.

At a National Assembly session in May where lawmakers were discussing child abuse, Binh Duong Province delegate Pham Trong Nhan asked: "When a four-year-old boy broke out crying because he didn’t win the game show ‘Biet Tai Ti Hon’ (Child Prodigy), did anyone ask if the child was hurt and by whom?"

Referring to the reaction of then 4-year-old boy Minh Khang at the awards night in 2017, he wondered if children’s reality shows were actually child abuse under a "cultural guise."

It reflected a common concern that has emerged in Vietnam in recent years. As television shows and professional competitions targeting kids mushroom, many wonder if children are being exposed to too much limelight too soon, scarring what should be a carefree childhood.

Children’s shows and contests straddle areas like music, dance and modeling. Some like "Biet Tai Ti Hon" invite kids to show off any talent they have.

Khang, for instance, showed his knack for public speaking and remembering miscellaneous information. Some other popular shows include "Giong Hat Viet Nhi" (The Voice Kids of Vietnam), "Buoc Nhay Hoan Vu Nhi" (Kids Dancing), "Guong Mat Than Quen Nhi" (Your Face Sounds Familiar Kids), "Than Tuong Am Nhac Nhi" (Vietnam Idol Kids), "Vua Dau Bep Nhi" (Junior MasterChef), "Nguoi Mau Nhi Vietnam" (Model Kid Vietnam).

Many are international franchises, with a kids’ version often being launched soon after an adults’ version succeeds. A notable recent launch was Sony Pictures’ "Kiddie Shark" based on "Thuong Vu Bac Ti" (Shark Tank Vietnam), a typical example of children being asked to rush in where adults fear to tread.

With entertainment for children always being in short supply since children’s cinema, music and literature are still rudimentary in Vietnam, these shows and contests fulfill a big cultural demand.

According to Pham Thi Kim Dung, CEO of Sen Vang Media Entertainment JSC which produces children’s talent shows "Thu Tai Sieu Nhi" (Super-kid Talent) and "Tuyet Dinh Song Ca Nhi" (Super Kid Duets), Vietnam has a young population and many parents really want to see their children take part in talent contests, creating insatiable demand.

Kid modeling shows and contests in particular seem to be highly popular. Founded by former model Xuan Lan, Vietnam Juniors Fashion Week in Da Nang City last April attracted a record 400 kids, twice the number seen at the two previous shows in Hanoi and HCMC in 2018.

"Super Star Kid Models", another of around 10 modeling events for kids with an unprecedented VND1 billion ($43,000) first prize plus opportunities to take part in international events, has attracted thousands of candidates.

Many parents register their kids for game shows thinking it will help their little ones become more confident and social. Some send them to coaching classes to train for talent contests at great cost.

For many parents, talent shows are also part of the long and serious process of preparing for future professions.

Dressing up kids for adults’ games

For whatever reason, taking part in a competition is a hard emotional ride. Like Khang, many other kids who lose also break out crying.

Khang’s father, Thanh Huy, does not want to enter his son in any more game shows since it requires taking leave from school, shooting late at night and possibly affects the child’s emotional and psychological development.

Many psychologists, both in Vietnam and abroad, agree that reality shows tend to create an unhealthy competitive environment, and children, who are still developing mentally and physically, need careful parental guidance when taking part in such activities.

According to a woman in HCMC who has also withdrawn her kid from "Vietnam Idol Kid" because of pressure, many parents play their kids’ games vicariously by "buying" audience votes and lobbying hard for their kids to advance and end up scolding or even slapping their kids if they fail to win.

For many viewers, children’s game shows look and sound like adults’ shows. In many contests, kids sing songs whose lyrics are abstract and express mature emotions rather than children’s songs.

At the 2019 "Model Kid Vietnam", some children wore heavy makeup and scanty clothes that even the judges were put off.

Former model and show host Thuy Hanh had to call attention to the fact that children should be children and requested participants to remove their makeup and change their clothes.

According to Xuan Lan, a pioneer in training kid models, many training centers make the mistake of trying to make children perform like adults instead of focusing on their loveliness. Parents and show producers have faced accusations of exploiting children for profit.

In his speech in the National Assembly, Nhan said parents’ ambitions and producers’ thirst for profits play a major role in driving children’s shows.

Gifted kids, abusive parents

According to Buu Dien, CEO of Dien Quan Media & Entertainment which produces "Biet Tai Ti Hon", producers are not right or wrong, and it is up to parents to make the final decision.

From his perspective, talent shows help uncover young talent. For some gifted children, the shows can indeed serve as a training and launch platform. For instance, singers Phuong My Chi, 17, and Nguyen Ngoc Bao An, 14, were discovered on talent contests and they gone on to build their own exceptional careers.

But how much exposure children should be subjected to remains a matter of debate. In some countries, authorities have started to censor children’s reality shows.

In 2016 China banned reality shows featuring celebrities’ kids. Last year the Indian Ministry of Information and Broadcasting warned TV channels not to let children perform adults’ dance moves in reality shows.

In some extreme cases, adults have even become abusive. In the U.S., the owners of the YouTube channel DaddyOFive, Michael and Health Martin, have been sentenced to five years of supervised probation for mistreating their children in their channel.

Starting this year, YouTube has also tightened its control over children’s content. Since 2018, "Biet Tai Ti Hon" has also altered its format to reduce competitiveness: there are no judges and audiences vote for not just one, but two final winners.

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