Skepticism

Psychic Kids

Even among self-identified skeptics, who are aware of the dangers of fraud and outspoken against the most popular offenders, there is a tendency to laugh at psychics. I mean, come on. They’re funny. We can get away with it because, unlike some other issues about which skeptics seek to educate, the public in general gets what’s up with this crowd. The average person doesn’t really believe in psychics, and understands that most them are everyday, garden-variety kooks or scammers or both, neither worth taking seriously.

But there are always exceptions that remind us of why we shouldn’t relax our guard. Psychics who rise to levels of influence equal to Sylvia Browne are of course one of them. Another exception are psychics who specifically exploit people who clearly are not capable of making informed decisions. Say, just for example, children.

psychic kids

In summer of 2008, the American television channel A&E premiered a series called Psychic Kids: Children of the Paranormal and has just begun airing the second season this November. Presided over by professional psychic Chip Coffey, and a few other mediums and paranormal experts, the show finds kids, who tend to range in age from 12 to 18 and who have experiences with visions, demonic possessions and other assorted unexplained and disturbing phenomena. The gathered experts then teach these “children of the paranormal” how to use their psychic powers to resolve their problems while filming it for a weekly, hour-long television episode.

I’ll start my serious commentary with an admission – I have not watched this show. I intended to, when I first saw the commercials for the second season and thought it would be a good topic to write about. But at my very first research stop – the official Psychic Kids website – I realized their own description gave me more than enough to work with:

PSYCHIC KIDS: CHILDREN OF THE PARANORMALâ„¢, profiles children who live with an incredible secret: they have psychic abilities. Feeling scared and isolated, these kids have nowhere to turn…until now. Help is on the way in the form of psychic/mediums Chip Coffey, Chris Fleming and Kim Russo, who themselves grew up with these senses, and licensed psychotherapist Edy Nathan, who has more than 20 years experience.

In this intense journey, the experts draw on their own personal experiences, training and unique outlook on life to bring troubled kids together to show them how to harness their abilities and, ultimately, show them that they’re not alone in this world.

Okay. In case you don’t see what’s wrong with the above paragraphs, let me unpack it a bit. Basically, a group of grown adults are singling out children who are troubled, who feel scared and isolated, and who claim to be haunted by evil spirits and possessed by demons, and telling them their problems can only be fixed by learning how to use their psychic powers in front of television cameras for the financial benefit of said adults. Clearer now?

If there ever were a case that screams exactly what the harm is in letting psychics go unchallenged, this is it. Not only are kids and their parents getting sucked into believing things with no solid evidence, but targeting children with documented psychological problems and giving them bogus solutions precludes them getting professional medical therapy and assistance they obviously could use. Even worse, televising the entire process normalizes the idea for the audience, which might include other troubled kids and parents who decide to try the same “solutions” with even less-scrupulous paranormal experts who aren’t being held to even the low standard of honesty television documentation imposes.

Not only is there nothing redeeming about Psychic Kids, it’s not even harmless entertainment. It’s actively harmful, and the victims are not adults who made their own mistakes, but kids in need who are being deceived and exploited. In short, it’s repulsive. The only real solution to this show is to out it for what it is and level the critical thinking influence to starve it out of of existence.

Jen

Jen is a writer and web designer/developer in Columbus, Ohio. She spends too much time on Twitter at @antiheroine.

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36 Comments

  1. Great post. Chip Coffey is despicable. My wife and I like to watch Paranormal State because frankly, those fantasy-prone young adults playing make believe are fun to laugh at. Guilty pleasure, and the guilt comes from thinking about the people they are “helping” (in many cases, people who need real help).
    Psychic Kids was kind of a spin-off, and we watched a bit of the first few episodes. It is most certainly not fun to laugh at. The kids on the show are truly very troubled kids, many with trauma in their pasts and Coffey et al. provide the opposite of what they need and only make things worse for these kids. This show makes my blood boil.
    My impression from watching Chip Coffey in action is that he is not a true believer, he is greedy, exploitative scum.

  2. I saw the first 5 minutes of this show, and I had to change the channel I was so disturbed. The poor boy was obviously in need of serious mental health care. The show is exactly like you describe it. It pisses me off every time I flip past that show.

  3. Thanks, Jen. I saw an ad for this show about a year ago, and I thought, “oh that is so reprehensible!” and then I forgot all about it. I think it’s time to mobilize and make some serious noise about this horrible show. Hello, Randi?

  4. I watched this once (or at least it was a similar show) and was going to blog about it but I didn’t know what to say – It was just kind of sad. The one I watched seemed like it was the parents who maybe didn’t want to admit that their child was different from other kids so they projected their paranormal beliefs onto the child’s issues. I thought the one nice thing about the show was that they put two of these “psychic kids” together as they trained them and whatnot, and it was nice to see the loner kids make a friend who could relate.

  5. “Basically, a group of grown adults are singling out children who are troubled, who feel scared and isolated, and who claim to be haunted by evil spirits and possessed by demons, and telling them their problems can only be fixed by learning how to use their psychic powers in front of television cameras for the financial benefit of said adults.”
    Is any of this guys a bald man in a wheelchair calling himself Professor Y?

  6. @scribe999: I think a 2×3 would be better. It is a little lighter than a 2×4, but being smaller, it’s easier to grip. I have fairly large hands, and still find this to be true.

    Hardwood (oak or ash or maple) would be better than SPF, but more expensive and harder to come by. Random lengths of spruce 2X3 can be found in just about any dumpster at any construction site.

    Or just take it to your TV set if you can’t find an exploitative psychic in your neighborhood.

  7. @scribe999

    No, no you could hurt your hand and he is definitely not worth it. As to why a 2×4, first thing that that popped into my mind. A baseball bat would work, especially aluminum, or a lead pipe and cricket bats always looked like a juicy weapon, or a pipe wrench, maybe an anchor chain. You get the point, broken knuckles hurt.

    Now if you’ll excuse me I must go work off some agression that I seem to have acquired somewhere or another.

  8. *looks at Chip Coffey’s face*, *looks at fist*…I think it can take it. That’s at least one thing I learned in stereotypical martial arts class for asian-am kids…how to punch.

    All kidding aside (never), mostly he should be punished by “catapult”, like in the episode ‘Homer vs. the 18th Amendment’ on The Simpsons.

  9. The best way to influence a TV network (or a politician) is to write a letter on the subject. Not an email, not a phone call. Handwritten letters are even better than printed ones. And it can take surprisingly few letters to effect a change. I’d bet that if everyone who is offended by this show would write a letter, A&E would at least consider dumping the show. It depends in part on how many letters they get that espouse the opposite view; and I can’t see people writing in to say that they love this show…

  10. I wrote A&E an e-mail last season about this show, basically saying what Gabrielbrawley wrote above in #1, without the expletives, plus adding how disgusting it is to exploit these children who probably need some REAL help. Never even got a “we got your e-mail, thanks for your input, but we don’t care” response back from them. Maybe if everyone who reads this would write a handwritten letter, as I’m going to do now per prfesser’s advice in #21, someone might get some sort of response.

  11. I couldn’t find any physical address on the A&E web site. All the “Contact Us” links led to email pages (I submitted a scathing complaint about “Psychic Kids”, I’ll see if I get any more response than @Maleficent did.)

    However a little Googling did find a site that lists mailing addresses for many TV networks. From it I got:

    A&E Television Networks
    235 East 45th Street
    New York, NY 10017
    (212) 210-1340

  12. Chip Coffey is despicable. He is truly the biggest lowlife and phony I have ever come across. This show is just beyond bad taste. These kids are not psychic. Some are bright and precocious kids heavily influenced by their parent’s metaphysical beliefs but most are clearly lonely with a “I just don’t fit in” mentality so I might as well see ghosts and spirits and talk to the dead and maybe that will make me cool. It’s sad but the worst part is that piece of shit Chip Coffey

  13. As a psychiatry researcher and neuroscientist who specializes in the early stages of schizophrenia and other severe mental illnesses, I find this show extremely disturbing. Not only is it the exploitation of minors, but these children and teens are showing many of the symptoms of severe mental illness. The worst thing for these vulnerable teenagers is to feed into their delusional beliefs, which is exactly what the show is doing. These children and teenagers need help from a mental health professional, not to have their illness broadcast on television.

  14. I thought interviewing credulous (adult) dolts about why “the wind blowing over their flower arrangement == poltergeist” was bad enough. It’s not as if tween girls don’t have enough problems, even when they aren’t suffering from a mental illness. The adults that enable this crap are essentially psychic paedophiles. At least regular paedophiles have the redeeming quality that they don’t generally do it for money.

  15. distroslut . . . I guess you have not heard of child pornography. Money is always at the root of child exploitation at any level . . . whether it is child labor, child soldiers or child trafficking. Child abuse is child abuse and Psychic Kids is a new low for child exploitation on television. When I saw that idiot Chip guiding a 12 year old through a murder scene to get her “Psychic Detective” hits on it . . . I wanted to jump through the screen and well . . . use your psychic ability to see what happens next . . .

  16. Okay I can see these sorts of things from a slightly different perspective than some other skeptics. I was a kid like this. Children who present as “empaths” or the like are usually extremely intelligent and predisposed to diagnosable mental illness later. I promise you that they are actually experiencing something that seems to be extrasensory most of the time. I do understand that indulging the supernatural aspects of this experience is exploitative within this context, but definitely not worse than exposing them to Santa Claus lies, because it can have a positive impact. Frankly, people can live happy lives within delusion, especially when that delusion is shared with others (religion) and people can live unhappy lives fighting what they recognize as delusion.

  17. My biggest concern with this premise is: how does appearing on the show impact the children who are involved? I have seen the show and, regardless of the your beliefs and opinions on the reality of psychic phenomenon, ghosts, etc., the children generally leave the experience happier, less anxious, less frightened, and feeling more confident.

    I may not agree with your choice of therapy – cognitive behavioral, NLP, EMDR, religious counseling, psychiatric medications – but if your choice results in an improvement in your life – then I would offer a hearty congratulations. Seeing a psychic and psychotherapist who believes in ghosts for a week with your parents is like choosing a form of, rather unusual, therapy and having it videotaped. People are entitled to do so. That the show strikes some as delusional and exploitative doesn’t automatically mean the show is deleterious to its participants.

    Critiques that the show is wrong because it “normalizes” an approach or an idea wanders into the territory of censorship. Religious people want the show “Sister Wives” canceled because it “normalizes” pologamy. It offends their beliefs. I happen to like “Sister Wives” because it gives people an opportunity to see what life is like in a pologamist family. Is it better, worse? Happier? Less happy? What impact does it have on the kids involved? Likewise, the psychic kids show gives us an opportunity to see how troubled kids working with purported psychics are impacted by their time together. It’s an opportunity to see, watch, and view the results. Does it help or harm? I seek out programs like these because they challenge me to keep an open mind. Not everyone shares my beliefs, but I would not want to live in a world where everyone did.

    I agree with cemeterygates, people can be happy believing things that are quite contrary to more science-based understandings. That they can be happy doing so, or make money off of it, seems to antagonize others. But I personally see no real reason to feel offense.

  18. @Farah: This is not an issue of “belief” – there is no solid, supported evidence for the existence of the solutions being offered to these children. Doing so may make them feel temporarily better, but what are the long-term effects of teaching them to rely on things that aren’t true? What will be the consequences of instilling unhealthy psychological habits so that instead of addressing their problems, they learn to lie to themselves for the rest of their lives just in order to feel better?

    Also, what evidence do you have that these kids truly are happier? The way the appear on a reality television show? I would require more evidence than that to assure me a child is really, truly healthier.

    It is not censorship for me to express to a privately-owned and operated entity that I don’t wish them to produce a product anymore because it has no demonstrable value and is in fact harming people. In fact, I do also object to Sister Wives. I think it’s horribly irresponsible to completely sidestep the fact that religious polygamy is based on the complete subjugation of women and that in real life has resulted in both psychological and physical abuse of women (both easily backed-up claims). However, I’m not as compelled to campaign against it publicly, because the show focuses on grown adults making their own decisions about things. This show’s direct focus and reason for existing exploits some minors who are legally unable to make decisions about their medical treatment and employment themselves. It’s not enough to simply not watch this show. As a viewer of A&E, I feel their product is crossing ethical boundaries by being produced in the first place.

    As I said in the beginning of my post, I often do not feel personally offended by the decisions adults make that are not made on science-based understandings. I disagree, and in the proper context I speak against it, but I rarely feel the need to attack it.

    But the introduction of mentally troubled children is a completely different matter. These are individuals that should be taken care of by the adults around them, not lied to. And to stand idly by when such events are happening, or, worse, tune in to watch it happening because one enjoys it and it seems everyone is happy, is illogical and unethical, to say the least.

  19. @Jen: I just found a passage by Ben Goldacre in”Bad Science” that seems to encapsulate everything about this. Commenting on a bit of educational pseudoscience, he says:

    But Brain Gym [a program marketed to schools featuring a mixture of trivial common sense and wholesale pseudoscientific hokum] perfectly illustrates two more recurring themes from the industry of pseudoscience. The first is this: you can use hocus pocus – or what Plato euphemistically called a noble myth – to make people do something fairly sensible like drink some water and have an exercise break. You will have your own view on when this is justified and proportionate (perhaps factoring in issues like whether it’s necessary and the side effects of pandering to nonsense), but it strikes me that in the case of Brain Gym, this is not a close call: children are predisposed to learn about the world from adults, and specifically from teachers [and parents and “therapists”]; they are sponges for information, for ways of seeing, and authority figures who fill their heads with nonsense are sowing the ground, I would say, for a lifetime of exploitation. [My comments in brackets.]

    Goldacre goes on to describe his 2nd theme, “the proprietorialization of common sense”, but since Pyschic Kids (at least the one episode I’ve seen so far) is completely lacking in common sense, I don’t think that is relevant.

    I’m still working on my formal, physical letter of complaint to A&E, but I plan to work in some of Ben’s words some how, particularly the last point about exploitation.

  20. “There is no solid, supported evidence for the existence of the solutions being offered to these children.”

    People are entitled to explore options of which solid, supported evidence does not exist. And it is my opinion that “solid, supported evidence” is based on one’s point of view anyway. Evidence can be interpreted from different viewpoints, and while a consensus is often achieved (e.g. global warming) that does not mean that everyone agrees to the same set of facts.

    “Doing so may make them feel temporarily better, but what are the long-term effects of teaching them to rely on things that aren’t true? What will be the consequences of instilling unhealthy psychological habits so that instead of addressing their problems, they learn to lie to themselves for the rest of their lives just in order to feel better?”

    It is your opinion that these are unhealthy psychological habits. Others may not feel the same. Some might call a reliance on religion an unhealthy psychological habit. That’s simply one’s point of view. To the belief holder it can be a way of life that they enjoy and prefer.

    “As a viewer of A&E, I feel their product is crossing ethical boundaries by being produced in the first place.”

    Insisting everyone follow your line of ethics is, in my opinion, censorship. I don’t believe in legislating ethics or parenting, and I choose not to watch programs I find inane rather than demand their removal from televison because I accept the fact that although I find some shows valueless – others may have a different perspective.

    Incidentally, I had the same opinion about pologamy as you did prior to watching the show. However, “Sister Wives” expanded my opinion beyond black and white – it is a workable, happy social arrangement for some (not ALL, or even the majority). But some. And in this particular case – it’s a much happier, more content relationship than many, many, many traditional marriages.

  21. @Farah: People are entitled to explore options of which solid, supported evidence does not exist. And it is my opinion that “solid, supported evidence” is based on one’s point of view anyway. Evidence can be interpreted from different viewpoints, and while a consensus is often achieved (e.g. global warming) that does not mean that everyone agrees to the same set of facts.

    There are NO facts or evidence supporting the existence of psychic phenomena. NONE. At what point does it become pathological to insist on a baseless claim? Especially when using it to financially exploit damaged children?

  22. @Farah: Then there really isn’t a point in continuing this discussion. My measure for meaning is reality and what can be reliably proved to align with that. Are individuals entitled to ignore this? I suppose so, but I’m then also entitled to express my own disagreement and sadness about young people in need not given a fair chance to decide about reality themselves.

  23. Hi Buzz,

    Native American families believe in nature spirits, Baptist families believe Jesus died on the cross, etc. etc. There is no universally accepted evidence for these things. However, we – as a society – don’t pathologize these individuals. Yes, some people many believe these individuals are misguided or ill-informed, but it’s a slippery slope when we start to pathologize people for their beliefs. I am not of the opinion that believing in psychic phenomenon constitutes a disease.

  24. @Farah:

    If I were you, I wouldn’t espouse the evils of mental health diagnoses unless I had some education in neuroscience or neuropsychology. Delusional, depressive, and destructive behaviors are most often symptoms of injury within the brain, whether brought about by stressors, genetics, infection, or a combination thereof. When we break a bone, we don’t assume that perhaps nature intended us to be that way, or that it is a manifestation of our ability to transcend the physical realm by rejecting our regular form—we go to the damn doctor and have it fixed.

    “Insisting everyone follow your line of ethics is, in my opinion, censorship.” Let me follow this line of thought beyond your point of view: The next time I have an idea for an animal behavior study, I will use this argument, because distressing human beings to the point of major physiological changes would provide a greater opportunity for external validity and application. When the IRB rejects my proposal on the basis of my lack of ethics, I’ll just threaten to sue them for censorship. Right?

    There is a large portion of “ethical” behaviors that should not be subject to democratic process. Murder is one. Child abuse is another. This falls under the latter.

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