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"For the folks who click on Where Are They Now articles, I am here. We are here," Stoner writes. "This is your first time reading my story, but it is our millionth time asking you to listen"

By Alyson Stoner
April 07, 2021 12:00 PM
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Editor's Note: This op-ed contains details of sexual violence and abuse.

In a personal op-ed titled "The Toddler to Trainwreck Industrial Complex," Alyson Stoner writes about the effects of child labor and how and the "notorious" effects it has on those who go through it.

Stoner revisits her career as a child star and reflects on how Hollywood can work to change the worst aspects of growing up in the spotlight.

Name something comparable to the pop culture phenomenon of child stardom.

As someone whose professional career initially spiked at 11 years old and whose face is now the cover of clickbait articles titled "10 Shocking Ways These Child Stars Died," it's been a harrowing 80 years.

I'm only 27.

While traversing extreme peaks and valleys of global fame, hidden medical hospitalizations, artistic milestones, rapid adultification, and multi-layered abuse I wish on no one, I narrowly survived the toddler-to-trainwreck pipeline. In fact, nothing was designed for me to end up… "Normal." "Stable." "Alive."

Alyson Stoner
Stoner in 2004 on the set of Mike’s Super Short Show doing a campaign for a local library to show kids the importance of reading, even though she only had a few hours of schooling per day while working
| Credit: Courtesy Alyson Stoner

The toddler-to-trainwreck pipeline is a notorious and thriving industrial complex around child entertainers. It was first documented in 1885 when Elsie Leslie made her theatrical debut at 4 years old, becoming an American celebrity at 6. Since then, a full-fledged system has emerged. It is expertly constructed and bolted in place by censoring the harm happening behind the scenes, manicuring aspirational lifestyles and outcomes, and then watching young lives tragically implode.

You may recognize the pipeline by specific press campaigns (see "shocking rebellion" or "miraculous comeback"). It prophesies pitiful and shameful fates for little tots with big talent, while conveniently remaining in denial of its own violent blueprint. Instead, the damage manifests as illness or questionable behavior and gets projected onto the child as if they are an isolated problem. This does not dismiss their personal responsibility or negate the positives and privileges that accompany the spotlight. Simply, the records are consistent.

How can children unwittingly copy and paste the same horror stories, cries for help, and humiliating spirals? How come there have been no signs of improvement for centuries?

As someone who lived it and witnessed thousands endure alongside me, I can attest that what is missing from the pipeline narrative are clear action plans for intervention, long-term prevention, and accountability from studios, agencies, and guardians.

On behalf of the current children being abused right now, there is an opportunity for us to empower each other through honest conversation and collaborative action.

Alyson Stoner
Stoner, in 2002, attended frequent classes at the renowned Millennium Dance Complex and ended up assistant teaching at age 10, later becoming the youngest person at the time to teach a Masterclass there at about 13
| Credit: Courtesy Alyson Stoner

I invite you to revisit this script with a broader lens.

FIRST ACT

Scene I: The Audition Room

At 6 years old, I enter a sterile white room where a stranger stands apathetically behind a camcorder on a tripod. On cue, I perform the scene. This morning, I'm being kidnapped and raped.

Ending in the fetal position under a chair with my body frozen in fear, I stand up, wipe my tears and thank the stranger for the opportunity. I walk to the car ruminating over my performance, comparing my screams to the other kids' I heard from the waiting room.

As with many parents in this unusual situation, my mother is not versed in how to help me regulate my nervous system. I remain catatonic on the first half of the drive, until I remember we're en route to a second audition for a princess toy ad. On the spot, I manually alter my mood, personality and outfit so I can win over a new stranger with a camcorder. I need to outperform 900 other candidates. Suddenly, I'm "Smiling Girl #437."

These visceral portrayals of scenarios etch themselves into my bodymemory and compound with trauma occurring in real life behind closed doors. Additionally, there is an alarming dissonance about being coached to offer my 6-year-old self vulnerably to unfamiliar adults who have power over my well-being and future livelihood.

Alyson Stoner
A candid photo from the after party of the 2008 New York premiere of Camp Rock. Stoner was "in the throes of anorexia nervosa and exercise bulimia," trying self-help techniques to recover. Her pants were 000 and needed a belt, she says
| Credit: Courtesy Alyson Stoner

My methodically rehearsed helplessness during the first audition will either be associated with rejection (not getting the role), or I will be rewarded by booking the gig. To clarify, I'll be paid to recreate kidnapping and rape repeatedly on set with a crew of more strangers. If I'm especially believable, I may even get an Oscar and the praise of America.

Let's contextualize this. Developmentally, my perceptions of basic safety, healthy relational attachment, and awareness of my environment are highly impressionable. Cognitively, I'm just beginning to comprehend the difference between the real and the imaginary. And my nervous system is imprinting patterns that will unconsciously dictate my behavior personally, socially and professionally for decades to come.

WHAT CAN WE DO? One immediate solution is having a qualified, third-party mental health professional on every set, especially if minors are present. Think "school counselor" or "sports psychologist." They can help monitor working conditions and be available to assist entertainers in regulating, shifting between identities and discharging residual inner turbulence after emotional performances. They can provide a safe space for people to anonymously report misconduct, harassment and mental health struggles. Trust me, the cost of one mental health practitioner is far cheaper than the existing "damage control" funds.

Scene II: Child Labor Laws

I am 12. I am a machine.

I'm currently contractually obligated to complete multiple overlapping projects. I'm President of a corporation with salaried family members and multi-vertical teams. Revenue models for billion dollar media empires revolve around my peers' and my faces, talents and labor.

While some companies stay within the legal range of working hours for minors, many do not. Regardless, set conditions are inappropriate and hazardous. Did you know that according to the U.S. Department of Labor, 17 states still don't have any regulations in place for child entertainment in 2021? Yet, all 50 have working child performers.

Adding to this, zero productions acknowledge that after their shoot, I will go to another, record an interview during my lunch break, train for multiple hours, skip dinner, and meet for a late-night rehearsal. After all, their responsibility is to deliver a product on time and in-budget, not to babysit. Meanwhile, agents are encouraging me to look at early emancipation so I can work longer hours. This will increase my hire-ability.

My body is medically undernourished and chronically stressed, which later will evolve into severe eating disorders, adrenal fatigue and mandatory bedrest. The onset of puberty has turned my waist and bust into the main objects of attention and inspection. This will also categorize my career trajectory.

I've learned that it is safer to dissociate in order to survive what my mind and body are subjected to daily. I'll be numb for another five years, but all you will see is the ever-highly-functioning, Smiling Girl #437.

By now, I've missed months of schooling and my education is spotty at best. I am socialized to be "on" at all times, ranging from three dozen daily fan encounters, to grown reporters grilling me on my opinion of current events for which I'm not an expert, to avoiding any and all authentic friendships to protect confidential information. I try not to have an inflated sense of self, but even my church puts me on a pedestal.

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WHAT CAN WE DO? Families and young people are not properly educated on the risks, pressures, consequences, and difficult processes and decisions ahead. Simultaneously, there aren't healthy standards or accountability from agencies and production companies. There needs to be mandatory Basic Industry and Media Literacy courses for guardians and representatives and to guide set protocols. This can act as a buffer to check the guardian's motives and level of preparedness. It can reveal negligent and greedy behavior within agencies. And it can establish the best practices for getting the million-dollar shot in the safest, most ethical manner.

Scene III: The Boiling Point

I'm 17. In just over a decade, the tentacles of the industry have suffocated and destroyed my family, every member with their own unique hardship. This whole dynamic can distort and exhaust even the healthiest of humans. Yet, each of us is forced to uphold a veneer, lest negative press reach our doorstep. The show truly never stops.

Then it hits me. My childhood is officially gone. I can count on one hand how many times I've seen my father since I was little. My father had all three of his daughters ripped away from him and swallowed up by a system that would replace me in seconds.

Alyson Stoner
After an ER visit due to non-epileptic seizures and periods of sudden unresponsiveness, loss of sensorimotor function and the inability to verbally communicate in December 2018. She continued working on projects while going through a battery of tests to find the root issue.
| Credit: Courtesy Alyson Stoner

The grief, trauma and stress overtake me like a tsunami, and I admit myself to rehab against the guidance of my team. (They continue to send me auditions while I'm on bedrest.) I'm not here for drugs or alcohol. I'm here because I'm at least 20 pounds underweight and I'm daring to believe that my health matters, even if it feels like I'm the only advocate for it.

Unfortunately, I am reminded that taking this break risks losing momentum. Unless I have elite representation, millions of dollars and major networks pouring into a strategic debut into adulthood, my younger work will not amount to much in the eyes of "serious" film and television casting directors. After 200+ movies, shows, videos and tours, I'll need to start over, re-train, re-introduce myself. Culturally, I will be reduced to my past characters and expected to fade into a nostalgic memory or a "has-been", even though I haven't had a chance to learn who I am in the first place.

I sign-in my name at the hospital, my body broken and my spirit shattered. A young girl battling her own health crisis finds a moment of relief, laughing at the television. I look at the screen.

It's my face.

SECOND ACT

Maybe some have concluded that only unbalanced people are attracted to Hollywood, or you perceive this as claiming victimhood.

This isn't about pointing fingers, but about working together to protect children who will be the next generation of society, many of whom have palpable influence over your own kids. Very few resources exist to help people unpack and navigate the implications of a child star-studded culture, whether you're the kid, the parent, the agent, or the audience. Solutions like mental health practitioners and Industry Literacy courses are easy next steps.

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Though I'm not without scars and ongoing struggles, I am still one of the most fortunate cases. I had access to a therapist who saw past the enchantment of fame and taught me to safely reinhabit my body. By some inner mysterious force I committed to deep self-work and constant healing as my rebellion.

I dared to lose everything I'd worked for and walk away long enough to gain paradigm-shattering insight. These privileges are not equally available, distributed or even encouraged. The opposite is regularly enabled.

And no. I didn't mention the sexual harassment, stolen IP and money, paparazzi, psychological impact of the new influencer landscape, toxic power plays, and what actually happened on all of those sets. If we disrupt and heal the toddler-to-trainwreck pipeline, we won't need another cautionary memoir. But, by highlighting my story as any form of "exception" to the rule, we misunderstand my peers' suffering, and we shift attention away from the changes needed immediately.

I believe everyone deserves to feel safe, comfortable and confident in their mind and body, especially youth who are vulnerable with fewer tools to navigate daily life. No matter what has happened to you, there is a way to reconnect with yourself and reclaim your story, your voice, and your authority as your own. (This is why I work with licensed somatic psychotherapists at my company Movement Genius to help young people improve their mental and emotional well-being.)

For the folks who click on Where Are They Now articles, I am here. We are here. This is your first time reading my story, but it is our millionth time asking you to listen.

So, I'll leave you with some questions for reflection: How might you as the audience or outside witness be connected to the toddler-to-trainwreck industrial complex? What are the risks of viewing these documentaries and headlines as entertainment without action?

Something I have learned is that as long as we are enchanted or complacent, we're also vulnerable. This applies to families in Hollywood as well as consumers at home. Together, we can change the narrative.

If you'd like to continue this conversation, feel free to share this with friends and connect with me on social media: @alysonstoner. And now you know…