Instagram pageants: New form of cyber-bullying

May 10, 2013 8:33:14 AM PDT
Girls as young as 9 are posting photos online for others to judge. It's a cyber beauty pageant with a Mean Girls' twist. One Main Line mom says it's happening locally and parents need to know what's going on.

Instagram is the super popular way to share photos of friends, and pets, and sunsets, and all the rage among teens and tweens.

Action News sat down and spoke with a group of suburban Philadelphia girls ages 9 to 11.

Each one has their own Instagram account.

Villanova mom Hollee Actman Becker knows her daughter, Emma, is sharing her cell phone photos on Instagram and monitors the account.

That's exactly what she was doing a couple weeks ago.

"I started scrolling through the newsfeeds and that's when I saw the beauty grids," Becker said.

She'd come across the hottest new trend for young people online. Young girls go head-to-head in cyber beauty competitions, allowing anyone, even strangers, to vote for the prettiest.

"Seeing your own kid's picture in one of those contests when your kid has no idea she's even in it is startling," Becker said.

Every girl in Emma's group of friends knew all about these instant Instagram beauty contests.

"I knew we were voting on prettiness," Emma said.

The winner gets bragging rights. The loser gets the red X across her face. That happened to 10-year-old Samantha.

"I was upset because I know I am beautiful and I don't like how people are saying I am ugly," Samantha said.

10-year-old Ashley said it took her five minutes to make a beauty grid using photos of her friends.

"After I realized I was like, 'oh my gosh; why did I do this? This is so mean,'" Ashley said.

Child psychologist Dr. Elizabeth Gosch warns that this negative feedback on appearance at such a critical age in a girl's development can have detrimental effects.

"Body dissatisfaction does predict later drops in self esteem which then predicts other problems such as substance use, anxiety, depression, early sexual behavior and other things like that," Dr. Gosch said.

She recommends parents monitor their kids' online activity and play detective to stay ahead of the trends.

"They're continuously 10 steps ahead and you really need to stay on top of it," Becker said.

And like Becker, turn negative experiences into learning opportunities. She posted a positive image and encouraged her daughter's friends to pass it along.

"It took me one minute of education for these girls to realize that what they were doing wasn't cool or funny, that it was hurtful," Becker said.

It seems these girls got the message. Beauty is only skin deep.

"I really don't like beauty contests now," Ashley said.

"Everyone thinks they're beautiful and when people are saying they're not, it makes them feel bad," Samantha said.

Facebook which owns Instagram has a policy of not allowing anyone under the age of 13 to create an account or share photos on Instagram, but kids we talked to said that's a requirement that's easy to bypass.

In a statement to ABC News, Instagram said that parents should monitor their kids online and that the online photo-sharing service takes precautionary measures against inappropriate behavior.