At first glance, it appears to be any ordinary play-date for two young girls at primary school.
In a pink-walled bedroom, decorated with posters of Justin Bieber, best friends Zoe and Eleanor settle themselves on to the bed and press play on the webcam of their computer.
But they’re not about to video-chat with friends or a relative abroad. What they’re doing is far more pernicious – and will be horrifying to parents everywhere
‘This is mine and Eleanor’s hot-or-not video,’ announces Zoe, waving a list of her classmates’ names at the camera. Then she settles down – seemingly without any comprehension of the genie she is unleashing from its bottle – to publicly deem each one of them as either ‘hot’ or ‘not’.
‘If we say you are not pretty or good looking, don’t get offended,’ pipes up Eleanor, issuing the standard disclaimer for videos of this kind. ‘It’s just our opinion!’
The roll-call then begins. ‘Anna Wright’ is the first of the 30 names on the list to be read out as if from a class register. ‘Hot!’ the girls immediately exclaim in unison.
Next is Charlotte Davies. ‘Hot!’ is the decree.
The name of a third classmate, however, is met with a pause just long enough for the girls to exchange knowing smirks.
‘Not hot. Sorry!’ they chime in high voices which belie the cruelty of what they’re saying.
If you are judged to be “not”, you don’t say anything as you don’t want the others to think you are upset. But it’s humiliating because it’s so public. Some people will try to change the way they look because of it. There are loads of these videos. There are so many of them on people’s Facebook pages as well as YouTube – and there’s nothing adults can do.’
These girls, and the objects of their judgment, are no more than ten or 11. And they’re far from alone. These kinds of scenes are being played out in children’s bedrooms across the country.
Seven more classmates, both boys and girls, get the thumbs-down. As soon as the last judgment is handed down, the girls sign off with a satisfied: ‘Thanks for watching!’
They then upload the video to YouTube for everyone to see. In just a few days, the clip gets 120 views, suggesting no one in their class – or perhaps their school – has missed it.
But what people will miss is the sight of the stricken faces of the children so cruelly dismissed, the tears shed into pillows, and the bravery needed to go to school the next day.
Of course, cruelty among children has existed since the words ‘No, you can’t play with us’ were first uttered. But this is a new, more public humiliation. Scroll through YouTube and you’ll find ‘hot-or-not’ videos by girls who look no older than nine. Thousands more can be found on Facebook pages.
And coming at such a critical time in their lives, when youngsters are looking to their peers to help them work out who they are, those effects can be life-long.
The fact ‘hot-or-not’ videos are so public increases a young person’s feelings of shame and powerlessness about how they look. My worry is that youngsters internalise these labels and start bullying themselves, telling themselves they are ugly and they can do nothing about it.
Feeling unattractive and worthless can have a devastating impact on their chances of success: study after study has found that the grades of such children go down.
And if they feel they do not belong, they often start to avoid school.
Meanwhile, those who feel ugly or not good enough rarely join in class discussions, for fear of drawing attention to their appearance.
Indeed, more than six out of ten children who have been bullied said it had a detrimental effect on their education, according to a survey by charity Ditch The Label.
Living up to these ideals of beauty is one of many pressures bearing down on 15-year-old Alannya Blackmore as she prepares to take her GSCEs this summer.
Alannya, who lives near Yeovil, Somerset, has been on the receiving end of some of the judgments passed down in the 50 or so videos made by fellow pupils at her school, an oversubscribed academy rated ‘good with outstanding features’ by Ofsted.
Although she has been mainly rated ‘hot’, she has also been dismissed as ‘not’ in some clips.
When she describes her experiences, it offers a glimpse into a brutal world in which youngsters’ popularity is dictated by looks and the ‘in’ girls seek to maintain their classroom pecking order by passing down decrees on others.
As girls grow up, the prettiest rise to the top of the popularity poll, and it is this group, says Alannya, who are more likely to feel entitled to declare from up high who also makes the grade.
She says: ‘If you are judged to be “not”, you don’t say anything as you don’t want the others to think you are upset. But it’s humiliating because it’s so public. Some people will try to change the way they look because of it. There are loads of these videos. There are so many of them on people’s Facebook pages as well as YouTube – and there’s nothing adults can do.’
‘Hot or not’ started off as an American phenomenon, where young women would put a picture of themselves online and be rated by other users. In the UK, it morphed into the version we have today.
Some youngsters justify these videos by saying classmates can put themselves forward to be rated by ‘liking’ a status announcement saying someone at their school is planning to film one. Sadly, it’s often the most insecure youngsters, aching to be accepted by the pretty girls who make these videos, who volunteer. They’re seeking validation they won’t get.
So why is such ruthlessness starting ever younger? One reason is puberty is kicking in earlier, with as many as one in seven girls showing signs of breast development (with the associated surges in hormones) aged just eight.
Girls can also be allowed by their parents to grow up too soon, so they act like teenagers without the maturity to understand the consequences of their actions.
In a world where girls grow up feeling like they are in a constant beauty contest – half of three to six-year-olds say they worry about being fat, and a fifth of those under 11 have already been on a diet – these ‘hot-or-not’ videos should hardly surprise us.
Throw into the mix that they see adults being just as judgmental on some of our most popular TV shows – The X Factor, Britain’s Got Talent, The Apprentice – and it’s easy to see where they get the idea that being jugdemental wins friends.
In a clip in another bedroom, Sophie, yet another girl in her early teens, signs off her YouTube video – which was viewed 13,000 times – saying: ‘If it offends anyone, I am not sorry. I don’t care because I am just telling the truth.’
But the comments posted by viewers make clear that some of her peers see life very differently.
‘Everyone is beautiful in their own way. What is the point of doing these videos?’ asks one.
But there is one perhaps that sums it up the best:
‘I can only hope that one day, you’ll understand what a terrible thing this is to do,’