To many parents, it seems the most innocuous way a child can interact with technology is by looking at digital photos of themselves and their families and friends. At least they're not surfing an internet laden with predators and trolls, or playing violent video games, right?
But in a recent article in the New York Times, author David Zweig puts forth the hypothesis that this constant exposure to digital photography is actually making young children prematurely self-conscious.
Zweig describes his three-year-old daughter's frequent requests for him to "take a picture" and how she poses and demands to be documented. It's another symptom of "Kids Getting Older Younger", says Zweig, thanks to their near-constant exposure to self-focused stimuli.
"The more we film — and indisputably, we film a lot today — the more time our kids are, to one degree or another, knowingly acting a scene for the camera rather than just being present," writes Zweig.
He laments the moment that his daughter will no longer skip carefree down the hallway, and regretfully suspects that "our collective obsession with photos is hastening its demise."
It's true that we live in a snap-happy time, when the release of a new photo-ready gadget can cause riots, and so the story predictably prompted a wide range of reactions from readers.
"This article is utter nonsense," wrote a commenter from Seattle. "Photographs are shaping our lives? Maybe next we blame mirrors for deleterious effects on young people, or old for that matter."
Betsy from Vermont noted how children will often demand to immediately see the image that has just been taken.
"Seeing what they had just done, in still life, had taken the place of the natural joy of simply having done it."
Dr. Marshall Korenblum, psychiatrist-in-chief at the Hincks-Dellcrest Centre for Children and Families in Toronto, thinks that too much documentation can be harmful to a child's wellbeing.
"I do think all this emphasis on recording junior's every bowel movement (for example) is detrimental to his/her mental health," says Korenblum. "It increases narcissism, and bypasses the consent of the kid, who may be horrified years later to see pictures of him/her displayed who knows where."
Dawn Danko and her husband J.P. Danko are photographers from Hamilton, Ontario, and run the blog Picturesbymom.com, which offers tutorials to parents on how to photograph their children.
"I think the self esteem 'issue' from having your picture take is a little much," writes Dawn in the article's comments section. "But I do thing [sic] that parents should pay attention to how they are interacting with their kids…I always try to teach parents to enjoy being there with their children first - do you really want to watch your kids first steps on your cell phone screen?"
And it's not just a child's first steps that many parents will view through a cell phone screen. While a child's fixation on their own digital image may be off-putting to a parent like Zweig, who was raised in a smartphone-free world, it should hardly come as a surprise.
Today, our online personas are a careful history of who we are and what we have experienced, and images and videos form a vital part of that identity. So tourists on the Eiffel tower gaze at the view through tiny cellphone screens, and dads watch the births of their children the same way.
It should surprise few that kids are mimicking this behaviour.
In fact one father, Tyler, from South Carolina, described in the comments section his desire to film his daughter's birth.
"I felt a distinct conflict between the urge to document the irreplaceable moment, and the urge to experience it without distraction."
Can we be in any way surprised that our children are captivated by homemade photos and videos of themselves, when the adults in their lives are themselves documenting much of their own lives, perhaps far more than is necessary?
JP Danko agrees.
"When we go to shoot weddings, the mother of the bride is often taking pictures with her camera, even though they've paid professionals to do exactly that," says Danko. "You see the same thing travelling — people live their vacations through their cameras."
If parents want to prolong the innocence and absence of self-consciousness in their children that Zwieg says is eroded by constant image-making, perhaps the answer is to change the example being set, and for parents to curb their own self-documentation.
Of course it's not as if parents should stop taking photos of their children completely, but Danko advises that when it comes to photographing family, less is often more. In a recent post on Picturesbymom.com, the Dankos highlight three ways to take quality meaningful pictures, without constantly pulling out the iPhone.
1. Think, "Will this make a good picture?" "Before you rush to get out the camera, think about whether it's something you'll ever want to look at again," says Danko.
2. Take less pictures of the same thing. "With digital cameras, it's so easy to take 500 pictures — there's nothing to tell you to stop," says Danko. "Once you've nailed it, stop and move on."
3. Create opportunities to have fun with your kids that will put you in a situation to take great pictures. "We just went apple picking with the kids on a sunny day with nice light," says Danko. "Get them dressed up and make the photography a part of the event."
Now go play in the leaves with the little ones, and maybe leave the camera inside.
Watch the video below about a little girl amazing at drums.