Leaving 40 children in some wilderness and asking them to make a life for themselves there could make for some voyeuristic reality show. But what does it to do to the participants who are in the 8-15 age group is the question.
Controversy has surrounded the Kid Nation TV show for weeks. The attorney general of New Mexico, where the show is being shot, is investigating whether child labor laws were violated and inspectors illegally kept from checking out the set. One mother complained to authorities that her daughter's face was burned by spattered cooking grease, and four other children accidentally drank bleach.
The CBS channel has said the injuries were immediately treated by professionals.
But there may be lasting emotional injuries to some children involved and bad after-effects for viewers, say experts on media and kids.
Kid Nation emphasizes some of the worst aspects of society, such as group inequalities and fighting for limited resources, says Joseph Allen, an adolescent psychologist at the University of Virginia. "They re-create these bad things on purpose and then subject kids to them. The children are manipulated to an unconscionable degree."
It's not really a "kid nation" at all because adults quickly move in to structure the society and set rules, adds Michael Brody, a Washington, D.C., child psychiatrist who teaches about kids and media at the University of Maryland.
Left alone, the kids quickly flounder until a host sets up a contest that divides them into four classes. The rich can buy abundant candy and fun things without working; merchants, second in affluence, run the stores; cooks, paid less, prepare the meals; and laborers do all the grunt work and make the least money.
With one outhouse for 40 kids, many assigned to cook but unsure how, 15-year-old bullies getting in the face of delicate 8-year-olds and hard sleeping conditions, it's no surprise that the camera soon shows children crying. Viewers see 8-year-old Jimmy saying softly: "I'm really homesick. It's scary. I'm too young for this."
He is the only child who leaves. "What's it going to be like for him to go back to school after crying and being homesick on national TV?" Brody says. "He's going to be perceived as a wimp."
And though show spokesmen say that kids can leave, there's intense pressure not to, says Jana Martin, a child psychologist in Long Beach, Calif. "The host tells them, 'You can decide if you want to give up ... If you can't handle all of this, you can go home.' It's portrayed as a personal failure."
Children soon find out the four-member town council (kids chosen by show producers) award $20,000 every week to one deserving child. "We don't know how this would put pressure on kids who come from poor families," Martin says.
They learn "they'll have to impress 'the management' to get that money just like adults," says Donald Shifrin, a Seattle pediatrician and spokesman for the American Academy of Pediatrics. "It's all about materialism and consumerism."
CBS declined to respond to specific criticisms, but spokesman Mitch Graham said children had been prescreened to make sure they were emotionally and physically healthy.
While she deplored the show's intense rivalries, "there are some nice portraits of empathy and caring," says Jane Brown, an expert on media and adolescence at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill. Kids care for one boy with a muscle spasm, others comfort the weeping.
Some parents think the show did wonderful things for their children. (Parents signed waivers in advance that subject them to a potential $5 million penalty if they comment on the show, so the only parents who have spoken publicly are pre-approved by the network.)
Hunter Jeffers, 13, has been much more appreciative of comforts such as running water and more helpful around the house since he left Kid Nation, says his mom, Dawn Jeffers, of Augusta, Ga. "He also realized he doesn't know much about world politics, because some of the kids talked about it while he was out there, so he's watching more news on TV." He also wants to learn to cook, she says.
Jeffers says she and her husband prayed hard about whether to let Hunter participate. The contract waives CBS responsibility even if a child dies on set. "God was giving us signs that we were supposed to do this. God wanted Hunter for His kingdom out there," she says.
The show's competitive edge was healthy, says Isa Goenaga, whose 13-year-old daughter Natasha loved being on the show. "Competition made it more fun for them. That's what life is about. It's an accurate depiction of our society. You have to work hard, and you have to work harder than the next guy to move up in life," she says.
Natasha came home concerned about global warming and recycling old clothes, Goenaga says. "She didn't even want to come home. It made her a stronger person."
Some viewers, seeing the feats on Kid Nation, might push their children to be even more independent when many already are pressured to be "little adults" too soon, Martin says. It's good to see that children are resilient, but she shudders at the response of one boy in a focus group that saw the program. "He said, 'This shows we can do things better ourselves, and we should have more power!' That attitude could create trouble for parents."
Still, many parents don't see it that way. Casting for Kid Nation 2 has begun, says CBS' Graham, and more than 2,000 applications have been submitted.