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Teens and Tiaras: Virtual Beauty Contests on Instagram, and Why the Company Should Do Something About Them

Children’s beauty pageants are nothing new.  Many documentaries and movies depict such pageants, where little girls compete for crowns looking like mini-adults with hairspray and makeup.  These pageants have their critics and their supporters.  But now, a new phenomenon has arisen: virtual beauty pageants, where users can upload photos of themselves to become contestants. Instagram users then vote for their favorites.  So what’s the big deal? There is a key distinction.

In the traditional pageant, judges rank contestants privately and top scorers receive awards for beauty, talent, and other attributes (for instance, congeniality). But the judges don’t make negative comments about losing contestants, nor do they tell children who lose that they are ugly or unworthy.  In the online environment, however, this is very possible.  People can not only vote for their favorite “contestants” but also leave comments about them—either positive or negative.  The comments are the major concern here, for two reasons.  First, children may be harmed by harsh comments. And, second, it is worth considering whether children’s looks should be the subject of open public debate, and whether Instagram should do something to curtail these pageants, or at least omit the commentary that accompanies the voting.

How the Online Pageants Work: Beyond Toddlers and Tiaras

The photo-sharing site Instagram has become a wildly popular way to trade pictures of pets and friends. But a new trend on the site may shock parents.  Unlike children’s pageants featured on the television show Toddlers and Tiaras, where mothers sign up their children for contests, virtual beauty pageants, in which thousands of young girls, many of them appearing no older than 12 or 13, submit photographs of themselves for others to “judge.”

In one example, the head shots of four girls, of junior high school age or possibly younger, are pitted against each other.  Viewers have to “like” a contestant for her to stay in a contest and become a finalist.  The types of photos that are posted are wide-ranging – from girls with braces and glasses, to others with lots of makeup and glitter. Some look sultry; others look like 10- or 11-year-old kids.  Any of Instagram’s 30 million users can vote on the appearance of girls in each photo post’s comments section. If a girl’s photo receives a certain number of negative remarks  (as opposed to likes), then the pageant “host,” who can remain anonymous, can update the photo with a big red X or the word “OUT” marked  across the girl’s face.  Comments can also be extremely harsh.   “U.G.L.Y,” wrote one user about a girl who competed in one of the Instagram pageants identified by the keyword “#beautycontest.”

Parents and child-safety experts also naturally worry that those young girls who put their photos up on Instagram, make themselves potential prey for adult strangers who may try to connect with them.

The postings of photos that may appear to be voluntary may also be posted due to peer pressure and, once the photos are posted, may lead to the humiliation or ridicule of the girls.   It also exposes girls to potentially cruel interactions as they move from early adolescence into young adulthood.  Girls’ photos are potentially viewed by millions of viewers and voters, and could potentially generate numerous negative comments, which could be very hurtful to the girl in the photo. In recent years, students have taken their lives when subjected to cruel bullying and harassment—and the Instagram pageants, too, might feed into poor self-esteem

There is another privacy concern relating to Instagram as well. Although users can keep their Instagram accounts private, or use pseudonyms, they can also expose themselves to possible public identification, once they share their photos with others. Girls in virtual beauty contests often have not taken care to keep their identities and locations private. Some wear attire with school logos in their posts, and others provide a link to their Twitter, Facebook, or Tumblr account, despite the fact that those accounts include. information about who the girls are and where they live.

Are There Any Legal or Privacy Concerns Regarding Minors’ Internet Postings on Instagram and Elsewhere Online?

Readers may wonder if any law might possibly relate to such a situation.   The answer is that the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) requires that operators of websites or online services that are either directed to children younger than 13, or have actual knowledge that they are collecting personal information from children under 13, must give notice to parents and get their verifiable consent before collecting, using, or disclosing such personal information. To get around this requirement, however, Facebook, which bought Instagram, insists that only teens 13 years old and up can post on Instagram.  Due to this prohibition, Facebook and Instagram take the position that COPPA does not apply.

But it seems that Facebook’s prohibition on under-13 children is honored in the breach.  Indeed, even younger kids are reportedly submitting their pageant photos. Since Instagram knows that children want to use the site, it may have an obligation to obtain a certain type of explicit parental consent from parents in order to let kids post there—which is why Instagram may be using the 13-years-and-up language, as a shield against potential FTC interference.  One mother reports that she found her ten-year-old daughter posting a photo in an Instagram pageant. Facebook has also been criticized for allowing pre-teens to get around the rule.  Two years ago, Consumer Reports reported that pre-teens’ presence on Facebook numbered an estimated 7.5 million kids.  So Facebook and Instagram clearly need to find ways to ensure that they are enforcing their own policies.  The stakes here are high:  If more robust steps are not taken in-house, then Instagram might be investigated by the FTC, and might then have to take remedial measures to keep kids off the service.

What Can Instagram Do About Minors, Including Pre-Teens, Posting Beauty Pageant and Other Photographs Online?

One simple solution would be to ban these online competitions altogether, or to put pressure on the sites that host them.  But many other teen social-media sites or photo-sharing services offer, or easily could offer, the same features that Instagram does, so it seems unlikely that one company’s banning such photos would get rid of the problem entirely. Still, a site can decide that certain types of conduct are just in poor taste, and eliminate this option on its own—or at least publish strong warnings to teens who are attempting to run a beauty contest about the risk of millions of people voting, seeing their images, and posting negative and hurtful remarks.

Parents will likely want Instagram to be more vigilant and simply to keep their kids off the site.  Especially in middle school, girls are particularly sensitive to online interaction. For them, experts say, positive or negative comments contribute to self-esteem and the formation of their very identities.  In the real world, at pageants, the theory is that judges should accentuate the positive, and take care not to leave young girls shattered by vindictive or nasty comments—relegating that kind of emotional pain to the province of adult reality shows, where the participants know what they are getting into, can legally sign a contract for themselves, and hopefully can deal maturely with the experiences that they have on the show.

Even if Instagram allows the pageant photos to continue to be posted, the site’s service might still consider blocking a pageant-comment function, and thus permitting scores alone to appear.  And clearly, if someone else posts a teen’s photo on an Instagram competition and the teen did not consent, or was too young to consent, then that photo needs to be removed immediately by Instagram.

Anita RamasastryAnita Ramasastry is the UW Law Foundation Professor of Law at the University of Washington School of Law in Seattle, where she also directs the graduate program on Sustainable International Development. She is also a member of the Law, Technology and Arts Group at at the Law School. Ramasastry writes on law and technology, consumer and commercial law, and international law and globalization.
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2 Responses to Teens and Tiaras: Virtual Beauty Contests on Instagram, and Why the Company Should Do Something About Them

  1. Evil Overlord says:

    This seems like a genuine problem. But to distinguish this from in-person pageants, as if those were better – that seems to really miss the important point.

    You say yourself: “Unlike children’s pageants featured on the television show Toddlers and Tiaras, where mothers sign up their children for contests, virtual beauty pageants, in which thousands of young girls, many of them appearing no older than 12 or 13, submit photographs of themselves for others to “judge.””

    So, it’s better for mothers to sign their young teens up for contests where they’re judged (by adults!) on physical appearance, but not okay for them to ask for peer feedback? Also, you present traditional pageants as if they were all happy, cheerful, and positive. You think there’s no backbiting and putting down going on among those kids, or that if the judge just tells them ‘everyone is beautiful in their own way’, the kids don’t feel judged and shamed?

    I know you meant to focus on the unique online aspect, but in my view you seriously missed the point on the harm of any children’s beauty contest.

  2. Melinda says:

    This does indeed seem like a genuine problem. However, I do wonder why it is portrayed as a problem to be dealt with by the websites…have parents no responsibility to monitor their children’s online presence?

    As the mother of two preteen girls, it would never occur to me to give them unfettered access to the internet…it has proven, after all, to be a dangerous place for youngsters time and time again. Simple supervision. It really isn’t that difficult.

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