A recent article in the Denver Post piqued my interest: Instagram Beauty Contests Worry Parents, Child Privacy Advocates. In the article (that originally appeared in the Washington Post), the writer explains:
“Any of Instagram’s 30 million users can vote on the appearance of the girls in a comments section of the post. Once a girl’s photo receives a certain number of negative remarks, the pageant host, who can remain anonymous, can update it with a big red X or the word “OUT” scratched across her face. … The phenomenon has sparked concern among parents and child safety advocates who fear that young girls are making themselves vulnerable to adult strangers and participating in often cruel social interactions at a sensitive period of development.”
I’m an advocate of child privacy and online safety, and even go into schools to talk with kids about the dangers — and pleasures — of the modern highly-connected online world, so it’s a natural that this article would make me curious. I mean, at some level if kids don’t want to be judged or potentially criticized, they don’t have to post their picture on Instagram, or they can post the photo but not tag it “#beautycontest”, right?
To learn more, I went onto Instagram and did a few searches. First off, the screen capture on the top right shows how may photos are tagged with the hashtag #beautycontest. Almost 9,000 photographs. Below that, there are small thumbnails of the photos themselves, showing that most really are pretty benign and the collective photo pool really represents typical modern kids (albeit with an apparent bias against minorities).
From a privacy perspective I think it’s pretty clear to teens that if they post a photo on a service like Instagram it’s available to the greater public for perusal, and that “tagging” the picture makes it more findable by people interested in that particular concept, category or idea. (when I post landscape photos on Instagram — I’m d1taylor on the service — I tag them #nature #landscape #colorado, for example)
Or are they? One thing that’s been eye opening as I’ve talked with teens about the online world is that most of them seem to believe that they’re operating in a bubble, where they know that the Internet’s public and wide open, but they think that what they post is somehow only something their friends are going to see. You can see the disconnect. Truly, a girl like any of those shown above might well be assuming that only her friends and other kids in her neighborhood are going to see the image, not anyone around the globe who can then save the picture and/or do what they want with it.
But then again, add those hashtags and I think they change things just a bit. The purpose of hashtags is to increase the number of people who see your photo and there’s no doubting that a hashtag that’s “beauty” and “contest” is going to be a shallow, superficial vote or judgment of whether the person in the photo is beautiful or not.
Digging a bit further into the Instagram #beautycontest hashtag stream, it’s not hard to find examples of beauty contests in process, with the “big red X scratched across her face”, like the image on the left.
If you’re one of the teens whose face has been crossed out it’s harsh, but I believe that just about every child posting a photo of themselves and adding the “#beautycontest” hashtag knows that they’re submitting themselves for peer judgment.
For better or worse.
It’s no different to running for a peer judged title or award. “Most Popular”, “Prettiest”, “Prom Queen”. For every girl who wins and receives the kudos of her teen community, there’s another girl (think Carrie) who is told in no uncertain terms that she’s not the most popular, she’s not the prettiest and she’s not going to be the prom queen. Shut up and deal with it.
Harsh. But one of the truths of working with youths is that children are cruel.
Adults are cruel too, but most people by the time they’ve reached a certain age and certain level of maturity have figured out the proverbial golden rule: don’t be mean to people unless you want them to be mean to you too. Kids? Not so much. Think Lord of the Flies.
We’re still left with the question of whether beauty contests held on anonymous social media services like Instagram are good or bad. If the teens and adults participating are aware of the potentially negative consequences, then I don’t actually have any problems with it. Except that’s a really big “if”. I know with my own children, the idea of asking a dozen strangers “am I cute?” or “am I hot?” sounds fun, but if I were to ask them if they wanted to have hundreds of people, some of whom will inevitably be mean and crude, judge whether they’re beautiful, they’d all wisely avoid it.
I can only imagine the feeling of eagerly posting a picture I just took of myself, hoping to get lots of positive feedback and supportive comments, just to read “stupid”, “ugly”, “ruins the contest”, “dog”, “makes my mom look attractive” and worse.
We’ve created a world where it’s really the responsibility of the children to think through and wisely choose their own activities in the wild west of the Internet. Except most of them can’t “wisely” chose much of anything. That’s what it is to be a teenager. So it’s the responsibility of the parents to teach them and to work with them to ensure that they’re not getting too far down the rabbit hole, so that they’re not risking a crushing wave of criticism and hostility from an online beauty contest, a contest that far more people are going to lose than ever win.
What’s your opinion? Is this sort of thing dangerous? Should Instagram shut these sort of contests down or police them?