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The term child actor is generally applied to a child acting in motion pictures or television, but also to an adult who began his or her acting career as a child; to avoid confusion the latter is also called a former child actor. Closely associated is teenage actor, an actor who reached popularity as if a teenager.

Regulation of child actors

The activities of child actors are regulated by the governing labor union, if any, and state and federal laws. Longer work hours or risky stunts, prohibited in California, for example, might be permitted to a project filming in British Columbia. Some projects film in remote locations specifically to evade regulations intended to protect the child. In the United States, federal law "Specifically exempted minors working the Entertainment Business from all provisions of the Child Labor Laws." Any regulation of child actors is governed by disparate state laws.


Due to the large presence of the entertainment industry in California, it has some of the most explicit laws protecting child actors. Being a minor, a child actor must secure a work permit before accepting any paid performing work. Compulsory education laws mandate that the education of the child actor not be disrupted while the child is working. Whether a child actor is enrolled in public school, private school, or home school, the child does schoolwork under the supervision of a set teacher while on the set.

Finally, the hours a child actor may work are limited. Generally, stricter time limits are imposed for younger actors. A very young infant might be allowed "under the lights" only a few minutes a day. It is common in television production for the role of a young child to be portrayed by identical twins or triplets to reduce each child's time on set. When a child turns 18, the legal limits on work time are lifted.

Issues involving child actors

Ownership of earnings

Using children in motion pictures has been criticized as exploitation, particularly since some prominent child actors never got to see the money they earned. Jackie Coogan became a millionaire while still a child but almost all of his money was used by his parents.

Some have defended this saying that the child directly benefited from the lifestyle the earnings made possible or that the child would not have achieved stardom without a significant investment of time and effort by the parents. Others argue that it is unfair for the child to have to support the family when the parents are capable, as this tends to invert the parent child relationship.

In 1939, California weighed in on this controversy by enacting the original Coogan Law, amended at various times since, which requires a portion of the earnings of a child actor to be preserved in a special savings account called a blocked trust.

Competitive pressure

Some people also criticize the parents of child actors for allowing their children to work, believing that more “normal” activities should be the staple during the childhood years. Others observe that competition is present in all areas of a child’s life—from sports to student newspaper to orchestra and band—and believe that the work ethic instilled, or the talent developed accrues to the child’s benefit.

The child actor may experience unique and negative pressures when working under tight production schedules. Large projects which depend for their success on the ability of the child to deliver an effective performance add to the pressure.


Many actors' careers are short-lived, and this is also true of child actors. Peter Ostrum, for example, is now a successful large-animal veterinarian after a starring role in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. Most notably, Shirley Temple became a successful public figure and diplomat, eventually becoming U.S. Ambassador to Ghanamarker, then United States Department of Statemarker Chief of Protocol under the Nixon Administration, and then in the late 1980s U.S. Ambassador to Czechoslovakiamarker. Brandon Cruz is a successful punk rocker, after a co-starring role in The Courtship of Eddie's Father, Jenny Lewis, formerly of Troop Beverly Hills, is a well-known indie rock musician, and Kirk Cameron is a successful minister, after a co-starring role in Growing Pains.

Tragic and well publicized examples exist in which a child actor falls into self-destructive behavior. However, it has not been demonstrated that this hazard occurs more frequently in child actors than in the general population. One study by Lisa Rapport, Ph.D. concluded that "the present findings also indicate that the environment of the entertainment industry is not necessarily toxic to normal development. Instead, the results support the well-established theory that good parenting serves as a buffer for life stress."

Listings of child actors and singers


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