This Saturday in Halifax, Canadians with pop-star pipe dreams will line up for hours to sing for the judges of The Next Star, a talent-search television series casting its second season. Some will embarrass themselves, and the judge's constructive criticism may be too tough to hear: Last year a few burst out in tears and ran into Mommy's arms. Because when you're 7, rejection can be hard.
The Next Star, for kids under 15, is just one of several shows that puts kids and teens through the reality-show paces. On the YTV show, no one expects the younger ones to win, but their tryouts are still recorded and many end up in the show's early "audition" episodes.
Compelling television? Yes. Appropriate? Perhaps not. The shows are aimed at children, but parents who tune in with their kids will raise their eyebrows at the antics, which sees tweens copy the nasty behaviour made famous on adult reality TV.
On Survive This (tonight on YTV), Survivorman Les Stroud takes teens into the wilderness of Ontario cottage country to see how long they can survive on their own.
Things get testy after the first night under the stars. In Real Life (Wednesdays on YTV) sees teens race around North America while playing at be-ing firemen, ER doctors, NASCAR drivers and other professions, sniping at each other if someone screws up the daily challenge. There is also Karaoke Star Jr. (Mondays on CMT and YTV), a singing contest that gets kids to fight for telephone votes to stay in the game.
It's not surprising that some child psychology experts are wary.
"You're putting kids into real emotional situations for other people's enjoyment," says Jennifer Kolari, a Toronto child and family therapist and author of Connected Parenting.
A fan of adult reality programming - she evens recommends some clients watch shows such as The Amazing Race or Survivor to study the social skills of the participants - Ms. Kolari is worried about the effect that starring in such series could have on children.
"It's okay to have some competition, it's okay to try out for things," she says. "Those are okay lessons for kids. But doing it on national television, to be watched and judged, that's where I feel it's a little bit exploitive, and I think we need to consider the mental health of the kids that are on that show."
Becca Mehaffey, 17, is one of the eight teens who roughed it for Survive This. She has enjoyed watching the show so far, but acknowledges that listening to her co-stars complain about her in the private confession segments is hard.
"I haven't heard it [before] so I'm saying 'Did she say that about me? Oh my God!' I wish I'd known that so I could have said something," says the Markham, Ont., student, who was 16 when the show was taped. Dubbed "the princess" because she'd never been camping, she is "shocked" at how her crying and self-centred behaviour is coming across on camera - though admits it's an accurate portrayal. "Now I say, 'Becca, you should have just sucked it up and helped out,' but I didn't."
Jocelyn Hamilton, vice-president of programming and production for Corus Kids, which owns YTV, says producers take pains "not to do backstabbing type of reality, we want it to be fun." The reality shows are designed to feature "kid-relatable opportunities ... versus putting them in a situation that's contrived for gossip."
Any fighting or talking behind another contestant's back can be attributed to "the rush of competition," Ms. Hamilton says. "I wouldn't call that backstabbing, it's more competition driven than it is trying to manoeuvre someone be voted off."
As far as Calgary family therapist Gail Bell is concerned, the kind of personal growth that Ms. Mehaffey experienced - even if it's learned on a TV show - is a good thing. "Parents today try to shelter their kids from too much adversity. Kids need to learn to deal with it," she says.
Her caveat is that this next-generation of reality stars must understand that TV producers edit shows to play up the drama. "They need to sensationalize it. ... [Children]should know that before they go in, and the possible consequences."
Aaron Langille of Stewiacke, N.S., an In Real Life contestant, says producers made sure he knew what he was in for, even flying him into Montreal for an in-person interview.
"They wanted to know ... how I felt about other people talking about me, and how I felt about possibly losing or winning," says Aaron, who was 14 when he was cast.
His laid-back attitude ("someone else's opinion is someone else's opinion") has served him well in competition; he's one of the six remaining kids vying for tuition money and an all-expenses-paid family vacation.
Both Aaron and Becca loved the experience and say they would try out for another reality show "in a heartbeat."
"Reality TV is here [and]we can't make it go away," Ms. Bell says. "There are some kids that love it, so why not give them that opportunity?"