A suggestion to think and discuss

There are topics that I have planned for this blog for a long time, but they are so extensive and difficult that you do not dare to approach them at first.  Anyone who knows me knows, however, that I also like to tackle uncomfortable topics and, even if I don’t always want to be the admonishing critic, I also like to address unpopular things.

 Today it’s about the topic of Instagram, more precisely dance children on Instagram and other social media platforms.

 In the series “13 questions” on German TV channel ZDF there was recently a discussion on the subject “Do children’s pictures belong on the internet?”, which I found very worth seeing.

 The views and opinions of those involved were very different.  Some put their children online as a matter of course, some parents only pixelated or alienated them and other parents rigorously not at all.  I’m not a father myself, so I can only judge that from the perspective of a teacher and from my personal feeling I would only put children on the internet from behind or not clearly recognizable or pixelated.  In my workshops, I usually only film for archive purposes, I usually forget to take photos and if I do, I take a group picture with the children at the end.  I always find photos in motion a bit difficult, especially in the training environment, as it is almost impossible for all children to look equally good in a photo.  We do have parents sign a photo release form upon registration, but I have rarely posted photos like this on social media and our websites, except for projects where we have professional photographers with us.  I often only photograph or film feet or legs.  Unfortunately, this often means that I can share far fewer dance photos and dance content on my social media profiles than many of my colleagues, but I don’t think it has to be. 

 I’m on Instagram a lot myself, both professionally and privately.  On the one hand it is a good network for me to connect with dancers and colleagues, on the other hand my family and circle of friends are spread internationally and so social media is a good way for me to maintain contacts.  I am unfortunately becoming more and more of the opinion that the tone and the procedure on the various social media channels is becoming more and more toxic and unhealthy and I notice myself that I withdraw from it more often.  I’m no longer private on Facebook and Twitter and I think I’m too old for TikTok, I’m there, but every time I open the app from time to time I think maybe I should delete it.

My reach on social media, the number of likes or comments or other interactions have always been irrelevant to me, because I don’t feel like calculating what and when I post in order to reach as many people as possible.  The algorithm doesn’t particularly like me anyway, I get the impression.

 It’s often not easy to decide what to post anyway, because I have different careers and interests and therefore different follower target groups.  On the one hand, there is my work in dance education and my work as a dance judge, where I deal with children and young people, my international choreographic and artistic work, as well as my commitment as an LGBTQAI+ activist and my work as a holistic coach and author.  On the other hand, I’m still a private person.  So I always try to post in such a way that it complies with the protection of minors and the legal requirements, even if some content is perhaps too complex for children and younger adolescents.  I assume that they will continue clicking and scroll bored anyway, they mostly want to see private things that are funny or even better anything that has to do with dancing.  Even trying to have multiple profiles broken down by different topics only works to a limited extent.  Most of the dance kids and young people still follow me on my Sten Kuth profile and not on my dance profile.

 In general, I hope that most of the “kids profiles” are still managed by the parents, even though I’ve noticed more and more that the children who use social media alone are getting younger and younger, so I started posting some things only in a private friends list and not public, also simply to serve the target groups a little more specifically.

Parents have to answer the question of whether children’s pictures belong on social media or on the Internet generally for themselves.  Children also already have a right to their own picture, even if this is of course initially represented by their legal guardians.  However, I believe parents should ask their children before posting photos of them on Instagram or other social media.  This is important to respect the right to their own image and to ensure that the child is comfortable and happy with the photo being published.  Children should also be able to give their opinion on which photos of them should and should not be shared on social media.  Parents should also ensure that they do not post photos of their children in embarrassing or inappropriate situations and that their children’s privacy and safety are maintained on social media.

Parents and children have to learn how to use social media and question their own media competence again and again.

 The Internet is not the same as an old-fashioned photo album that is shown around at family celebrations or other occasions. Usually everything that was once on the Internet stays stored somewhere on the Internet.  I know from my own experience that I had times when I felt absolutely horrified when my mother showed these photos around, even when I was an adult myself.  On the other hand, you are of course happy when you have photo memories, but do they really have to be publicly available on the Internet?  In the meantime I own this photo album and now I can decide for myself which photos I keep secret and which I show around.  If my parents had put it on the internet back then, I wouldn’t have had the opportunity to make this decision today.  As I said, this is a question that parents and guardians have to ask themselves.

Anything that is once on the internet usually stays on the internet and can be shared and disseminated by anyone.

 Surveys stated that 72 percent of the children had already felt exposed to at least one danger online.  For 47 percent of those surveyed, this also includes things that are harmless in and of themselves, such as unwanted advertising and pop-ups, but more than a third (36 percent) also report “inappropriate content and images”.  Almost every fifth child has had contact with bullying (19 percent), sexual harassment (17 percent) and security issues such as hacking and phishing (17 percent).

Boston Consulting Group (BCG) study

 It is well known that there are potential risks for children on social media, such as cyberbullying, sexting, interacting with strangers or the misuse of personal information.  It is important that parents educate their children about the potential risks and ensure they use the platform responsibly.  But for this it is also necessary that we adults question our own media competence again and again.

 Incidentally, especially after Corona, at least in the studios where I teach, I have the impression that more and more children and young people are no longer interested in social media, at least I read relatively little from them on the social media channels anymore and also have to  less frequently remind students to lock their smartphone away.

 There are studies that reveal that more and more children and young people have had experiences with cyberbullying, i.e. with violence and assault on the Internet, even at a young age.  Part of this abuse is negative and offensive hate comments under posted photos.

 And everything I’ve written so far is just about normal everyday photos.  But now let’s look at the dance photos that are filling Instagram and TikTok.

 Children and young people in dance clothes that are often tight and skimpy because dance requires it, are made up and prepared for the stage, photographed and posted on the Internet. Additionally the poses that are detached from the movement often directly open a view in the middle of the crotch or emphasize certain parts of the body.  For us dance people and, how do I put it correctly, non-pedophile people, these photos are usually not really a problem.  But as I wrote at the beginning, we don’t know who else has access to these photos and, I put it neutrally, enjoys them sexually?  Where do these pictures end up?  It does not necessarily have to be pedophilia, but the photos are often used for advertising or identity theft without being asked.

For me personally, even more questionable, and I might snub some of you now, are the, I call them “Child Model Dance Influencer” photos on Instagram.  For me, as half American, this is so frighteningly unbearably American that I usually keep scrolling straight away and usually don’t like such photos.

 Children always want to imitate adults, the question is how far this is ok and when we have to stop them.

 I don’t know if I’m a little touchy and old-fashioned about this, but honestly I’m also a little angry at the reckless use of children in these poses on the internet.  I want to explain why.

 I have never made a secret of the fact that I am a queer person, a member of the LGBTQAI+ community.  Even if there are now more rights and protection for LGBTQ people in many countries, a step backwards can currently be experienced worldwide, including Europe and Germany.  Homophobic and transphobic violence and discrimination are increasing, as are racism, anti-Semitism and anti-Islamism.  Children and young people, whether queer or not, experience bullying and discrimination because of their appearance, their origin, or because they do not appear to conform to the norm, majority, or fashion trend.

Therefore, as someone who has been working with children and young people for over 30 years, I feel it is my duty to be open and positive about my identity.  This also includes conveying positive body images and conveying respect and acceptance, as well as equality, diversity and breaking up traditional hierarchies in dance and outdated stereotypes.

 Queer ways of life and, above all, a sexual identity cannot be promoted, even if hating people often say this.  Instead, however, one can exemplify diversity and create a climate in which children and young people can develop openly and without fear.  Especially in dance and artistic work, it is important to develop a non-judgmental understanding of the body and an open mind (despite all performance evaluation and training discipline).  Without this, creative work is not possible, in an atmosphere of fear and shame it is not possible to stimulate the children to creativity, free movement and artistic expression .

 I’m very happy that most of the parents of my dance students think the same way and appreciate that.  I take the protection of minors very seriously in my work.  I even give regular seminars on the subject.  Many other associations have meanwhile also started to develop protection concepts, require not only certificates of good conduct from their educators, but also an ethical self-declaration, which I have had on my website since 15 years, and then train educators in the prevention of and dealing with violence  against children and young people in any form. 

There are currently evangelical and conservative to right-wing populists and so-called concerned parents demonstrating against alleged early sexualization and against drag queens. Dragqueens who read for children from books intended to convey, hey, it’s okay to be different. Meanwhile at the dance tournaments and beauty pageants children are more made up than the queens of RuPaul’s Drag Race and staged like little mini adults.  This bigotry makes me very angry.

At the moment, however, I often ask myself, especially when visiting Instagram, whether we educators are often more concerned about the protection of minors than parents are.  When I then read in the news that evangelical circles, allegedly concerned parents and conservative to right-wing populists are always talking about so-called early sexualization, just because educators are trying to convey at more diversity and I then see what kind of children pictures are posted on Instagram at the same time, I don’t know if I should be angry or just sad.

 If you follow the news out of the US, you may have heard that in certain states Republicans are passing laws banning drag performance artists from performing in public or reading from queer and non-queer children’s books in public libraries to educate kids  “Hey, it’s okay to be different” or “Hey, it’s okay if boys like pink and girls like soccer”.

 If such events still take place, conservative to right-wing forces will demonstrate and shout in front of it and chant “safe our children” (this is also happening in Germany by the way) while at competitions at the same time, not only in the USA but also here in Europe  you can see kids wearing more makeup than the drag queens on RuPaul’s Drag Race on TV, something isn’t right.

 As already said, but you can’t say it often enough: Social media, regardless of whether it’s Facebook or Instagram or TikTok, is not a safe space.  Any profile that is set to public can be viewed by anyone.  By the way, even non-public profiles are not always 100% secure.  So we don’t know who sees our photos, downloads them via screenshot or appropriate software and what happens to these photos. 

Of course, I understand that in our case the kids and teens are proud of their dance achievements and like to post their progress and successes in order to maybe get some recognition for their hard-working achievements.

 But do you really have to post everything, and how much and what is safe and when does it become critical?  Before I delve deeper into this question, I would like to tell a short story.

 But they are so cute, standing there in their short skirts and wiggling their bums, they do it like the grown-ups do.”

Quote from a mother on the sidelines of a dance competition

 As early as 2010, in my capacity as chairman of judges for the dance festival Duisburger Tanztage in Germany, I had to go on stage at the finals and read out a statement from the judges.  During the course of the festival, the entire jury was bitterly struck by the fact that many children were not dressed, choreographed and made up in a way that was appropriate for children.  A lot of the choreographies were way too mature and even explicitly oversexy.  I was already familiar with this trend from my work in the USA, and I was appalled that this was now also reaching Germany.  I said on stage, “Even though we all think it’s sweet and cute and maybe don’t think anything bad of it, the jury’s opinion is that it’s not healthy for children to be presented on stage in this way, we don’t want to see Lolitas with make-up.”  , you never know what people are in the audience who aren’t just interested in dancing”.  First, a murmur went through the packed theater at the Marientor in Duisburg, and then there was very long and intense applause.  Since then I have expressed my opinion on this in various forums, events and various places and most educators, judges and parents usually agree.  Nevertheless, the trend continues unabated, meanwhile even worse than 2010 and sometimes I would like to close my eyes at competitions sometimes.

 In the meantime, social media has become more important.  Now the whole thing is not just limited to the closed space of the competition or the theater, but everything becomes completely public, as I wrote above.  Not only photos are posted, but also entire choreographies on YouTube and other channels.

What is the solution?  I can’t give you this answer alone either, but I hope that I can stimulate a discussion about it and that we could get a more critical approach to this topic.

 I have already described what parents can do above. You have to decide whether and what you want to put of your children online.  My advice is, do a double check and question certain photos and poses and outfits;  could these photos be misused? You are also welcome to discuss with your choreographers and educators whether certain outfits are really necessary and, even if make-up is necessary for children with stage lights, whether it is still age-appropriate.In the case of well-trained educators, I actually assume that they know what is okay for the children.  Unfortunately, I often see things at the competitions that make me doubt it.

 Check the followers list regularly to see who is following your child.  When in doubt, it is always better to set a child profile to private and not accept follower requests from strangers.

 What should choreographers and educators do?

 You have a special responsibility.  We know certain positions from classical ballet, certain rules that state how to turn to face the audience, which body parts are shown in which position to the audience, facing the audience or turning a little aside.  One could learn from this for all dance styles.  Of course, modern dance forms have movements and poses, just because of the work on the floor, that don’t always make it possible to not present certain things to the audience.  But some things should simply be a no-go: a wide splits in a leotard (sadly often without tights), facing the audience or a support splits pose where the crotch is shown facing the audience is not okay.  For example, if I’m doing a left corner split, I don’t have to do it with my left leg in front so that the crotch can be seen from the front, but I should use my right leg to hide the crotch from the audience.  These are just two examples.  In jazz dance and all its styles up to urban, I think it should be questioned more often how many “sexy” moves the choreography can tolerate in certain age groups.  And which songs and lyrics, which movements are suitable for children, that’s for another blog post.

 For each choreography, ask yourself which costume suits the movements, not only whether the costume allows for the movement, but also whether the costume can perhaps also avoid unwanted insights in certain positions or not.

What should photographers do?

 Many dance photographers I know destroy certain photos in the pre-selection because over the years they have gotten a feeling of what works and what doesn’t.  Unfortunately, most photographers are not dance professionals and while some may be good at photographing movement, they often lack a sense of movement expression and background.  A dance photographer once asked me how he could learn which photos are okay and which are not.  I told him, quite simply, whenever I can look at the crotch or the cleavage, then the photo belongs in the garbage can.  It’s not quite that simple, because there are definitely other things that aren’t okay.

It is unavoidable that certain positions and images emerge on stage, but I can only advise everyone to question carefully whether these snapshots should then be posted online forever and ever.

 Maybe we should just limit ourselves to photos of the award ceremonies or photos of the trophy and certificate in front of the photo wall, that many competitions have nowadays.

 Maybe you’ll should scroll through the dance profiles on Instagram and see how many photos you can find after what I’ve written today that are at least questionable.

 I don’t want to set myself up as a moralizer here, but I hope that I was able to trigger a few thoughts with this text and stimulate a discussion on what I think is an important topic.

 I look forward to your feedback, you are welcome to comment under this post.

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