WASHINGTON -- The photo-sharing site Instagram has become wildly popular as a way to trade pictures of pets and friends. But a new trend on the site is making parents cringe: beauty pageants, in which thousands of young girls -- many appearing no older than 12 or 13 -- submit photographs of themselves for others to judge.
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" across her face.
"U.G.L.Y," wrote one user about a girl, who submitted her photo to one of the pageants identified on Instagram by the keyword "#beautycontest."
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.
"What started out as just a photo-sharing site has become something really pernicious for young girls," said Rachel Simmons, author of "Odd Girl Out" and a speaker on youth and girls.
It's difficult to track when the pageants began and who initially set them up. A keyword search of #beautycontest turned up 8,757 posts, while #rateme had 27,593 photo posts. Experts say those two terms represent only a fraction of the activity.
Contests are also appearing on other social media sites, including Tumblr and Snapchat.
Facebook, which bought Instagram last year, declined to comment. The company has a policy of not allowing anyone under the age of 13 to create an account or share photos on Instagram. But Facebook has been criticized for allowing pre-teens to get around the rule -- two years ago, Consumer Reports estimated their presence on Facebook was 7.5 million.
Though users can keep Instagram accounts private or use pseudonyms, sharing photos can expose them to public. The beauty contests girls often did not take care to keep their identities and locations private. Some dressed in shirts with their schools' names. Others provided links to their Twitter, Facebook or Tumblr accounts with information on who they are and where they live.