Alyson Stoner, the former child star who appeared in huge Disney franchises like Camp Rock, The Suite Life of Zack and Cody, Phineas and Ferb, as well as countless shorts and music videos including Missy Elliot's "Work It," penned a heartbreaking op-ed for People detailing the chronic condition of childhood fame and how the abuse she endured from the Hollywood system nearly broke her as it did many of her peers.
"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," Stoner wrote. "In fact, nothing was designed for me to end up… 'Normal.' 'Stable.' 'Alive.'"
She wrote that this "pipeline" is a traumatic system that runs on "censoring the harm happening behind the scenes, manicuring aspirational lifestyles and outcomes, and then watching young lives tragically implode."
We've seen the system hurt young stars again and again. Britney Spears. Lindsay Lohan. Demi Lovato. The Olsen twins. "The damage manifests as illness or questionable behavior and gets projected onto the child as if they are an isolated problem," Stoner wrote, adding, "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?"
Stoner believes clear plans of action for intervention, long-term prevention methods, and adult accountability is missing from the equation. "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."
She broke the system down into a clear two-act structure to explain how things go so horribly wrong for child stars, using her own experience as an example. Stoner recounted her first audition—she was 6 years old and auditioning for the role of a child who had been kidnapped and raped. An hour later, she found herself auditioning for a princess toy ad, and thus had to shapeshift into another person to hopefully land both roles.
"These visceral portrayals of scenarios etch themselves into my bodymemory and compound with trauma occurring in real life behind closed doors," Stoner wrote.
She continued, "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."
Stoner suggests that an on-set third-party mental health professional is the answer to this problematic imprinting. Not only can this professional help minors (and adults, as well) navigate between identities, but also help child actors when they need to report mental health issues and misconduct.
Next, Stoner broke down the issues with child labor laws. At age 12, she was "contractually obligated to complete multiple overlapping projects."
Despite the legalities surrounding child labor, many companies, Stoner wrote, do not comply. "According to the U.S. Department of Labor, 17 states still don't have any regulations in place for child entertainment in 2021," Stoner said. "Yet, all 50 have working child performers."
At this young age, Stoner was skipping meals to work her overlapping jobs, and agents even encouraged her to seek emancipation from her parents so she could work longer hours. "My body is medically undernourished and chronically stressed, which later will evolve into severe eating disorders, adrenal fatigue and mandatory bedrest," Stoner wrote. "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."
"There needs to be mandatory Basic Industry and Media Literacy courses for guardians and representatives and to guide set protocols," Stoner suggests, to act as a checkpoint for guardian motives. "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."
And by 17 years old, Stoner's family had crumbled due to the constant stress and she had admitted herself into rehab. "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," she wrote.
But this "break" resulted in Stoner needing to start over—her marketability crashed because she was no longer relevant. "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," she wrote.
"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," Stoner said. "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."
She realizes that she is "one of the more fortunate cases" of childhood stardom, and she credits her therapist and an "inner mysterious force" that drove her to commit to self-work and constant healing for helping her make it through the tunnel—though not without her own scars and trauma.
"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," she noted. "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."
Before signing off, Stoner asked the reader to get involved with the disruption of the pipeline—"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?"
"As long as we are enchanted or complacent, we're also vulnerable," Stoner concluded. "This applies to families in Hollywood as well as consumers at home. Together, we can change the narrative."