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Experts fear effects of media spotlight on 'balloon boy'

  • Story Highlights
  • Falcon Heene, 6, finds himself in public eye after balloon incident
  • Psychologists say media spotlight can be overwhelming for children
  • Reality shows and Internet have made it easier to exploit children, experts say
  • Boy's father denies speculation that incident was publicity stunt
By Stephanie Chen
CNN
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(CNN) -- The young child known as the "balloon boy" appeared sickly on NBC's "Today" show Friday morning. With his eyes adrift, 6-year-old Falcon Heene leaned his tiny head against his father before he vomited -- right in front of the cameras.

Falcon Heene, 6, and his family appeared on CNN's "Larry King Live" on Thursday.

Falcon Heene, 6, and his family appeared on CNN's "Larry King Live" on Thursday.

The saga of the boy believed to be floating inside a giant silver balloon adrift over Colorado captivated a world audience. And the media spotlight has stayed on him.

After the boy was discovered safe and sound in his family's attic, his parents have continued to place him in front of TV cameras.

Falcon's vomiting incident followed an earlier TV segment on "Good Morning America" where the boy, wrapped in a gray fleece sweatshirt, looked exhausted.

"Falcon, you OK there?" asked concerned anchor Diane Sawyer.

"No. Mom, I feel like I'm going to vomit," Falcon replied.

Ann Mullis, professor of family and child sciences at Florida State University, said "the vomiting could be due to nervousness, stress or some illness, but a continual push for a person to be in front of the media and do things that aren't developmentally appropriate can be stressful to a young child. He's only 6 years old."

Other child and developmental psychology experts warn that too much media exposure can be harmful. They worry that the spotlight could skew the child's sense of self-identity and negatively affect his or her development.

Mike Brody, chairman of the American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry's Television and Media Committee, said that being in front of cameras can be an overwhelming experience for children.

Producers and journalists pose a litany of questions, causing the child to feel like he or she is being punished or in trouble, he said. He criticized families who put their children on television or the Internet, calling the act an "intrusion of the child's privacy."

On Thursday, after Falcon came out of the attic over the garage, father Richard Heene invited about 30 members of the media into his home, and a reporter asked Falcon to re-enact how he hid.

"The parents aren't forced to do these media interviews," Brody said. "They can say, 'We want to get together and process what happened here first.' "

There have been few scientific studies on how children who appear in the media spotlight are developmentally affected in the short and long term, says Alan Kazdin, a professor of psychology at Yale University and director of Yale's Parenting Center and Child Conduct Clinic.

Although Kazdin said it is hard to determine what precise effect media exposure will have on children, he said children who adjust to change easily are less likely to be negatively affected by the attention. He said it's normal for children to be anxious or upset during an interview.

"The child isn't going to be traumatized," Kazdin said. "He's going to do all the shows that might not be a positive experience, but it's not going to stunt him."

Kazdin added that parents often subject their children to things they may not want to do, like getting a vaccination or taking tuba lessons.

Charles Figley, a professor of psychology at Tulane University, said parents should be worried about the long-term effects of the media spotlight.

Figley has spent years studying children of politicians who are used as audio-visual aids. He said Falcon could face teasing or labeling from his community, which could impair his self-identity at a very young age.

Figley also warned that, unlike child stars, children like Falcon usually aren't trained to handle the media.

"He will never be the same again, because he's been on CNN, 'Good Morning America' or whatever, his 15 minutes of fame," he said.

Child stars and children of celebrities have long battled the emotional distress of being tabloid fodder and being hunted by the paparazzi. But psychologists say shows like TLC's "Jon and Kate Plus 8" and CBS's "Kidnation" have influenced ordinary parents to seek fame.

Experts say there are ample opportunities for children to be exploited in an era littered with social media, YouTube, blogs and reality television.

After the balloon set off Thursday, there were reports that young Falcon might have climbed aboard. Federal and local authorities, including the Colorado Air National Guard and the Federal Aviation Administration, searched by air and on foot for more than four hours around the Fort Collins, Colorado, Heene home.

"I'm feeling very, very grateful that Falcon is among us," Richard Heene, a meteorologist, said after he was found. "We went through so many emotions yesterday."

Some in the media and the public have expressed anger and belief that the incident was a publicity stunt.

On CNN's "Larry King Live" on Thursday, Falcon said he heard his parents call for him from the garage. When asked by his father on air why he didn't respond, the boy replied, "You guys said we did this for the show."

When Heene was questioned by host Wolf Blitzer to explain what his son meant, he became uncomfortable, finally saying he was "appalled" by the questions. He added that Falcon probably was referring to all the media coverage.

Heene continued Friday to angrily deny speculation that the balloon incident was a publicity stunt on the "Today" show and "Good Morning America."

Stunt or no, the Heene family has a reputation of putting Falcon and his brothers in the public eye.

Richard and Mayumi Heene and their children were featured on the ABC reality show "Wife Swap," in which the mothers of two families who have very opposite living or parenting styles switch places for two weeks.

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A YouTube video of the family appearing on Denver, Colorado's KMGH newscast features two of the Heene sons briefly discussing chasing a hurricane. On CNN's iReport, Heene's submissions include an account of his sons helping him chase Hurricane Gustav.

The Larimer County Sheriff's Office says it plans to re-interview Richard Heene on Friday.

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