In this country, we treat children differently from adults. We send them to school, support them financially and protect them from adult emotional experiences. Below a certain age they are not allowed to have sex, drink alcohol, smoke or watch films with explicit sexual images. But that is only one side of modern childhood. The other involves young people who not only want to behave like adults, as children and teenagers have done since time immemorial, but are actively encouraged to do so.
Take Declan Galbraith, whose clear young voice is currently audible on a CD put out by the Capitol record label, where he sings longingly of wanting to return to dear old Ireland. "I wish I was in Carrickfergus, where she is waiting, my rainbow's end", he pipes over strings and a harp, pining for his sweetheart. Now I have no idea whether Declan has actually visited Carrickfergus, but I do know that he comes from a village near Rochester in Kent, that he has a three-album deal with EMI, a manager, a stylist and a PR consultant (Max Clifford, natch). And that he is nine years old.
This makes him a boy in a hurry in an industry whose "stars" are becoming ever younger. The Victorians sent boys up chimneys, a practice that is now universally condemned as a form of child abuse, but today's equivalent is putting youngsters barely old enough to attend primary school on stage. Tot Stars, GMTV's low-budget version of the hugely successful Pop Idol formula, is open to kids as young as five; the youthful winner will be awarded a recording contract and start work at once, while continuing their education at stage school.
There is certainly no shortage of young wannabes – at a Tot Stars heat in a shopping centre last month, surprised passers-by were entertained by a self-assured nine-year-old boy whose chosen song was "Evergreen", the ballad recorded by the winner of Pop Idol, Will Young. Viewers will have the chance to vote by phone on Friday and the winner will be launched on his or her showbiz careernext Monday.
Talent contests for children are ubiquitous these days. As well as Tot Stars, there's currently KFC's search for the UK's funniest kid, and sweet manufacturer Haribo's child impressionist competition. Declan Galbraith's career took off when he was spotted at a local show. The eight youngsters who make up S Club Juniors were chosen at four auditions where more than 10,000 kids competed to become stars. The man behind S Club Juniors is Simon Fuller, former manager of the Spice Girls and the brains – if that is the right word – behind Pop Idol.
It is not beyond the bounds of possibility that a future edition of Little Stars in Their Eyes, a one-off kids' version last summer of the ITv adult show in which contestants impersonate their singing idols, might feature a group of youngsters imitating S Club Juniors who are themselves based on the adult band S Club 7. Can it be long before someone launches a 'reality' TV show called Little Brother, in which a group of kids is marooned on a TV set and encouraged to emulate the youngsters in William Golding's Lord of the Flies?
Claims of normality are made forcefully by the "people" – managers, PR consultants, record company executives – who surround budding child stars like Declan Galbraith and the ludicrous lucrative Olsen twins, Mary-Kate and Ashley (stars of their own TV show in the US and now in London to launch a clothing range at Asda). But how many nine-year-olds talk unselfconsciously about "my stylist" and "my writers", as Declan did in a recent interview with the Evening Standard? And while the youngsters aspire to be like Britney Spears, the world of kiddie-entertainers is haunted by the careers of an earlier generation of child stars such as Michael Jackson and Lena Zavaroni.
There are, you might think, few more cautionary tales than Zavaroni's. The young singer with the enormous voice came from the Isle of Bute, where her family ran a chain of fish and chip shops; she attended stage school in London and got her big break, aged nine, on a TV talent contest, Opportunity Knocks. She won with her version of "Ma, He's Making Eyes at Me" and soon graduated to appearing with Liza Minnelli and Frank Sinatra at a Royal Variety Performance. But she could not cope with fame, began to show signs of anorexia nervosa at 13 and her career was effectively over by the age of 20.
When she died four years ago, at the age of 35, she weighed only three-and-a-half stone. She had been living on income support at the time of her death but still hoped she might one day be well enough to resume her singing career.
It is hard to imagine a more tragic story yet it has not stopped thousands of parents driving their sons and daughters to one audition after another. But the well-known downside of the celebrity lifestyle – drink, drugs, failed relationships, eating disorders, burnout – is not the only reason to look askance at the child-star phenomenon.
For all our attempts to protect children from adult experiences, Britain has the highest rate of under-age pregnancy in western Europe. When a 12-year-old girl gives birth, it invariably prompts a bout of soul-searching over the pressures that conspire to make British children grow up too early. It is hard not to recall this justified concern when 12-year-old Daisy from S Club Juniors gyrates in cut-off jeans for the band's video, or a 14-year-old from Southampton appears on Little Stars in their Eyes in a slinky skirt and low-cut top.
It is not that anyone doubts that a 13-year-old girl, given the right clothes and make-up, can look 20. But you do wonder whether a girl of that age is capable of handling the responses she may get from older boys and men. It is also reasonable to ask whether she should be encouraged to do it by an industry whose bottom line is not talent but money.
One explanation for the boom in child talent contests is that record companies are no longer just selling CDs but the fantasy embodied by the National Lottery slogan, "it could be you". The turnover of personnel in established bands like Atomic Kitten is so high – the all-girl trio has had three different line-ups in as many years, and the youngest member is only 19 – that the gap between pre-teen fan and teenage star no longer seems insurmountable.
The marketing opportunity is enormous: youngsters who believe they are in with a chance of being the next Spears or Young can be coaxed into buying all the paraphernalia that go with their aspirations – videos, clothes, underwear. Argos, the retail chain, has come under fire for launching a line of padded bras and g-strings for pre-teens, a gimmick that might on the surface reflect nothing more than our culture's obsession with extreme youth; even pop stars who are in their thirties, such as Kylie Minogue, have reinvented themselves in a way that makes them look like 17-year-olds.
But there is more to it than that. We live in a culture that simultaneously eroticises pre-pubescent children and lives in terror of child abusers. The paedophile witch-hunts that took place a couple of summers ago were an extremely ugly phenomenon. But it would be as foolish to dismiss the threat to children from paedophiles as it is to exaggerate it. And while videos of kiddie bands like S Club Juniors are unashamedly aimed at their immediate contemporaries, they may also send an unintended message to child abusers.
Of course there is an adult audience without a sinister agenda for child performers like Galbraith, whose repertoire of sentimental ballads is unlikely to appeal to fans of the S Club Juniors. Yet EMI's investment in the nine-year-old reflects another unappetising aspect of contemporary culture, which is an almost Victorian appetite for freaks. He is the modern equivalent of the bearded lady, fascinating because what he does – evoking emotions he is not sufficiently mature to feel – goes against nature.
Like Michael Jackson before him, Declan embodies the paradox of child stars who are required to simulate adult feelings convincingly in their performances when their emotional apparatus remains that of a pre-pubescent. It is in effect an impersonation of adulthood, at an age when most children are still playing with their peers, and brings with it the twin dangers of growing up too quickly or not at all.
There are very good reasons for not expecting children to work, and for shielding them from the unnatural pressures that are part of the entertainment industry – contracts, sudden wealth, publicity tours – until they are mature enough to cope. This remains the case even if the children seem to enjoy what they are doing at the time, as Michael Jackson's later career suggests.
We should not forget that the little boy who sang so maturely about adult love has grown up into a man whose closest relationships appear to have been with another precocious child star, the actress Elizabeth Taylor, and a pet chimp.Reuse content