What Happens When The Nickelodeon Cameras Turn Off?

Dan Schneider on the set of iCarly with Jennette McCurdy in 2007. (Image courtesy of IMDb)

Dan Schneider on the set of iCarly with Jennette McCurdy in 2007. (Image courtesy of IMDb)

Ryan Rose, Co-Editor

The employment of children in acting positions is highly controversial; it is widely agreed that there is a need for child actors in the media, but the conditions that they work under has been highly debated. Are these children still getting a quality education? Are they being paid fairly for their work? Are they working in safe and healthy environments?


Most states have some degree of laws that are designed to protect child actors; many require that these children work no more than eight hours a day, work a maximum of forty hours a week, and not work for more than six weeks a year. Additionally they must have food and drink provided for them, physical safety at all times, a guardian to accompany them on set, and medical treatment provided for them when needed. It is also required that the child still continues their education.


One major issue frequently brought up by critics of the practice is the fact that child actors typically do not get the same education as other children their age. Many of these children do not go to conventional schools; instead, they go to their classes oftentimes on their filming locations when they are not needed on camera. As a result, they are not allowed the same educational opportunities that most students are offered. They don’t get the same opportunities to socialize, to join school clubs or activities, or to learn from things like field trips or school-wide presentations. Due to the nature of how these classes are taught and the fact that they are only taken when the actor is not filming, many of these children do not prioritize their education. Schooling is oftentimes seen as an afterthought; acting becomes their top priority as it is their true career and education comes second; it is viewed as something that they just have to get out of the way. 


The payment of child actors is another heavily criticized aspect of the practice. Child actors do not get access to all of the money they make. Just as for all other actors, about 25-35% of a child actor’s salary goes to agents, managers, lawyers, and sometimes even business managers. On top of that, 15-40% of their salary is taxed, even if the actor is younger than the standard minimum age required to work in the state. Of the money that is left, 15% goes to what is known as a Coogan account and the rest goes to the actor’s guardian. A Coogan account holds this portion of the child actor’s profits until the actor turns eighteen. Many people find the fact that such a large portion of their salary goes to their parents and not to the children themselves to be flawed; they see this as an opportunity for parents to profit off of their children even if acting is not what the child wishes to pursue or is not a healthy career option for them. 


Another big issue for children within the acting industry is their mental health; the career itself is highly demanding and sometimes unhealthy working environments add on to the stressors of child actors. The process of auditioning puts an extreme amount of pressure on young actors. These children, sometimes as young as four or five years old, are being asked to prepare a performance for casting directors and the feedback can be quite overwhelming. These children are not only judged based on their acting skills, but also their physical features and whether or not they would look the part, which oftentimes can be detrimental to their self-image. Former child actress Jennette McCurdy revealed in her memoir, I’m Glad My Mom Died, that she quickly learned that the children most preferred by directors and casting agents were the ones that listened to feedback without much fuss and did as they were told. This can potentially end up creating unhealthy working environments on sets, as it did in her case with the producer of her two hit shows iCarly and Sam and Cat.


McCurdy, and other child/teenage-actors that worked on Nickelodeon shows, worked under the producer Dan Schneider, a man who has been accused of numerous acts of inappropriate conduct on and off of Nickelodeon sets. McCurdy alone claimed that Schneider, who she referred to as “The Creator” in her memoir, gave her inappropriate shoulder massages and alcohol even when she was under the legal drinking age of twenty-one. She also described the feeling that she always had to obey “The Creator” and stay on his good side out of the fear of angering him (an easy thing to do) and losing her roles. Other actresses, who were also minors, reported that they had to sit in the lap of Schneider, give him massages, and film uncomfortable scenes that they felt inappropriately sexualized them (both by including sexually suggestive acts and outfits within his productions). In her memoir, McCurdy reports being offered $300,000 by the network if she kept silent about the inappropriate behavior she was subjected to and witnessed on set; she declined the offer and noted the flaws with Nickelodeon trying to silence her instead of doing proper investigations into the issue and righting their wrongs.  


It is clear that there is a major issue within the acting industry over how to properly feature children in shows and movies in a way that is appropriate and not harmful to the child. How do we fix this? Firstly, we need reforms on how long these actors are allowed to work; while it may make sense to cap the daily hours of a seventeen year-old at eight hours a day, it does not make sense to do the same for their younger coworkers. In no way is it moral to have a six or seven year-old child working an eight hour day; most six or seven year-olds don’t even go to school for that long. Additionally, there needs to be more mental health resources provided to these children as a requirement if they are to act professionally at such a young age. On top of this, networks need to be more responsible over who they allow to work with their child actors and expand their crews to hire more staff with the sole job of managing child safety and maintaining healthy working environments.