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Image: Demi Lovato
Evan Agostini  /  AP file
Disney star Demi Lovato, posing in August with Minnie and Mickey Mouse at the premiere of "Camp Rock 2: The Final Jam," has sought treatment for emotional and physical issues. Is she just the latest example of a teen star system that pushes young people too hard?
TODAY contributor
updated 11/7/2010 11:56:04 AM ET 2010-11-07T16:56:04

When Demi Lovato announced she was leaving her tour with the Jonas Brothers to seek medical treatment for “emotional and physical issues,” the news was simultaneously surprising and not surprising.

On one hand, it was a shock because Lovato hasn’t been a tabloid fixture like Britney Spears or Miley Cyrus. But on the other, teen stars running into trouble brings to mind the title of Lovato’s most recent CD, “Here We Go Again.” (As a Gawker headline cynically read, “Every time a teen star goes to rehab a Disney executive gets his wings.”)

Story: Lovato's dad: Pressures of Hollywood too much

According to a spokesperson for Lovato, the 18-year-old now “has decided to take personal responsibility for her actions and seek help.” Those actions include cutting and struggling with eating disorders, said another source who wished to remain off the record.

The stress that fame brings is worse for still-maturing teens than for adults, said Dr. Jenn Berman, a Beverly Hills psychologist who counsels troubled young performers. “It is an incredibly difficult schedule,” Berman said. “It’s incredibly demanding and it can be very high-pressure, especially for kids who really become very successful.”

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Berman said that when a young performer “has the right background,” pressures can be surmounted and stardom can be “a great experience.” Conversely, she said, fame can bring out the worst in an already troubled teenager: “The business is very seductive — in terms of ‘Come to this club opening, we’ll pay you money to show up and be with all the cool kids.’ It’s kind of like high school on a huge scale with ridiculous amounts of money and the opportunities for drugs and alcohol and to be self-destructive on an even larger scale.”

Story: How Miley will celebrate her 18th birthday

Adding to all that is today’s media environment, which puts young stars under a magnifying glass, said singer Tiffany Darwish, who scaled the heights of teen pop stardom under the name Tiffany in the late 1980s. “There are paparazzi at every corner,” Darwish said. “There are people willing to gossip now and get paid for it. I’m sure that always existed, but I think there was kind of a boundary (years ago).”

‘She seems to work nonstop’
In 2008, the Washington Post ran a profile of Lovato that noted “she seems to work nonstop.” Lovato’s schedule has only become tougher since then. Not only does she star in the Disney Channel sitcom “Sonny With a Chance,” she’s released two CDs on the Disney-owned Hollywood Records label, makes Disney movies and performs concerts.

Before Lovato checked into a treatment center, she was part of a world tour to promote “Camp Rock 2: The Final Jam,” a Disney Channel movie. Disney’s multimedia marketing of its teen stars has them taking on a massive workload, said Alison Arngrim, a former teen star who played bully Nellie Oleson on TV’s “Little House on the Prairie.”

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“Say you’re 18 and you’re really smart and you have a great family and you’re really stable — this is still an enormous amount of stress and pressure,” said Arngrim, who detailed her own struggles in the entertainment industry in her autobiography “Confessions of a Prairie Bitch: How I Survived Nellie Oleson and Learned to Love Being Hated.” “Disney has a setup that’s very similar to the old studio systems in the 1930s and ’40s. They create a star, they package people.

“This is the nuttiest (career) trajectory,” Arngrim said. “And to do this if you were a grown-up person you would lose your mind.”

Aubrey Ayala saw the beginnings of the mass marketing of teen culture when she worked as a teenage host on the USA Network’s “Dance Party USA” program in the early 1990s: “We would be there from 7 a.m. and work all day and then do other side things — a record project or some kind of meet-and-greet or a photo shoot for one of the formalwear prom posters. We weren’t allowed to look unhappy; we weren’t allowed to look tired.”

Paul Petersen, a former child actor and pop singer who provides support to troubled former child stars through his non-profit organization A Minor Consideration, said problems that crop up when teen actors are overworked often get overlooked.

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“People say, ‘That won’t happen to us, we’re careful,’ ” Petersen said. “Just imagine the number of generations of young performers and their parents I’ve witnessed over the years. They all believe they love their children more and that they will not be prone to making the same mistakes that historically they’re aware of: ‘We’re smarter than your parents were, Paul.’ No you’re not.”

More struggles ahead?
Lovato’s battle with eating disorders is likely due to the demands women in Hollywood face to adhere to a specific body type, said Arngrim: “I do not know a female creature in Hollywood who has not had the conversation where someone said ‘You’ve got to get the nose job and the boob job.’ And it’s getting younger and younger.”

Darwish said that in her era, being a pop star was a much more casual affair: “I really didn’t wear any makeup. It was so simplified — it was jeans and t-shirts.”

Petersen, who toured in the 1960s as part of Dick Clark’s Caravan of Stars, said life on the road is no place for a young adult who may have psychological problems.

“The road is a hellish place,” Petersen said. “It’s nuts. It’s a world without an anchor. It’s a world filled with drugs and sleeplessness and random sexual encounters. My only hope is that somehow she got the right advice. It’s time to stop and get some help.”

Petersen said he hopes any help Lovato received won’t be temporary. “If your current endeavor is making you sick and they send you to rehab, it is not a good idea to then go right back into the cauldron that made you sick in the first place,” said Petersen. “Do you have any confidence that the people around Demi can with full support and affection say to her ‘Girl, it’s time to quit this business’?”

Darwish said that Lovato’s travails ironically might help publicists to make her name even bigger: “I think that in today’s society, cracking up and doing things and getting caught is good press. You have people that can spin that and make a very bad thing not such a bad thing. And make it very newsworthy.”

But according to Arngrim, Lovato’s public admission of her troubles represents a step forward, regardless of whatever struggles lie ahead for the young star: “20 years ago she would have been pressured to complete the tour. She would have just stiff-upper-lipped it and we’d read about it years later when she cracked up completely.

“People didn’t talk about cutting 20 years ago. So the fact that at 18 and she’s realized she’s in over her head and that Disney and everyone is backing her up is quite revolutionary.”

Tony Sclafani is a frequent contributor to TODAYshow.com.

© 2013 NBCNews.com  Reprints

Video: Kyle Massey: Demi Lovato will be 'fine'

Photos: Hollywood's youth movement

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Discuss: Are young stars pushed too hard?

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