Emily Zhen: How Hollywood can turn child stars crazy

There are a few movies that in my mind never get old. “Mean Girls” is a given, but “The Parent Trap” and “She’s the Man” also make it on the list. Whenever I watch these movies, I can’t help but think, “What happened?” How did the adorable redhead Lindsay Lohan from “The Parent Trap” turn into a hardcore drug addict? How did Amanda Bynes, one of my childhood role models, become a frequent delinquent? These seemingly wholesome, grounded child stars, quite frankly, went crazy.

The mystery of why child stars go bad is like a “whodunit” scenario. Was it Hollywood’s fault, or are the stars themselves to blame? My theory is that it’s a combination of both Hollywood and inner conflicts.

Think about it. High school teenagers make mistakes…lots of them. I mean, isn’t this our time to make those small mistakes and figure out how to live life? We are in that awkward phase of still feeling like kids but trying to act like adults. We are risk-takers, we like to challenge authority once in a while and maybe we have a little angst. I’ll admit—we make stupid choices at times, but we usually learn from them and move on.

Now, imagine your most embarrassing moment or your biggest screw-up and picture that on the front page of US Weekly. Imagine googling your name and finding thousands of posts from strangers calling you ugly, careless, fat obnoxious, crazy. Imagine being bombarded by paparazzi interrogating you, accusing you, insulting you. Imagine disappointing millions of fans that are quick to judge and slow to forgive and forget.

Talk about high expectations.

Celebrities, despite their “star status,” are just normal people. But the difference is, when they make mistakes, it makes front-page news and haunts them forever. While we can filter the things we want others to know, celebrities simply cannot. As a result, they have no choice but to try to be perfect and accept the haters.

While our breakdowns can happen behind closed doors, child and teen stars don’t have this luxury. Their breakdowns are public and more intense. Often, they aren’t taught how to deal with the lack of privacy, how to channel their stress into healthy outlets and how to make their own decisions.

From an early age, child actors are told exactly what to do and how to act. After all, companies like Disney have an image to protect; they don’t want their stars running around and breaking the law. So Lindsay and Amanda appear to be the epitome of perfect children. But in reality, they aren’t—they are simply repressed by entertainment agencies greedy for more profit.

The result? When they leave Disney, they are finally granted the freedom to make their own choices.

The problem is, they don’t know how.

With a lack of decision-making skills and money at their disposal, this begins a cycle of bad choices, bad publicity, bad public breakdowns and bad outlets to relieve stress—drugs and alcohol.

In the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, child celebrities garner glory and praise for being “cute” and “endearing.” But when that painful episode known as growing up occurs, maybe she won’t longer be “adorable” and maybe movie critics will think that puberty ruined her acting capabilities. These child stars are accustomed to constant stardom, but what happens when they receive negative press or aren’t in the spotlight? They tend to crash and burn, crumbling under the weight of insecurity.

But hold on.

Hollywood can’t be the only one to blame. Child stars like Hilary Duff, Ryan Gosling and Justin Timberlake turned out all right. In fact, they are more than all right—they are still successful and inspiring today. It gives us hope that not all innocent stars grow up to be notorious criminals.

So the real question is, why does Hollywood change some child stars but leave others undamaged? The answer depends on the strength of family support, the individual’s character and his or her ability to handle pressure.

Maybe child stars just need some guidance in the transition from childhood to adulthood. Some start modestly and turn out levelheaded and content, but entertainment giants exploit the others to seize the next big hit. To help stars deal with this psychological warfare, we need to be more understanding.

But for now, let’s simply appreciate the comfort of our ordinary lives.