How Millennial Parents Are Reinventing the Cherished Family Photo Album

It’s never been easier for parents to take pictures of their kids. But preserving them for posterity is another matter.

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On the top shelf of closets, in dusty basements, and tucked away in chests across the country sit shoeboxes and stacks of albums filled with photos. The images, perhaps slightly curled and yellowed, usually chronicle all the big moments of childhood: births, first days of school, gap-toothed elementary-school smiles, and high-school graduations. For decades, the photo-stuffed shoebox has been a household staple.

But unlike when some of these musty photos were snapped, parents today might take a dozen photos of their kids even before noon, posting the best ones to Instagram and texting them to the grandparents before trashing the blurry, less-than-ideal shots.

Kodak once touted 2000 as a landmark year, when the number of photos taken worldwide first eclipsed 80 billion. Fast forward to 2017, when just about everyone has a cellphone camera in their back pocket, and that figure jumped to a staggering 1.2 trillion digital photos.

It’s never been easier for parents to take pictures of their kids. But as the shoebox full of photos goes the way of VCRs and cassette players, parents today have to wrestle with what to do with the mound of photos they’ve taken and how to re-create that cherished relic for the digital era. And, as if that challenge weren’t difficult enough, there’s no guarantee that the sites and programs they use will still exist in the long term, raising the question of how parents can ensure that all the photos they’ve taken will actually be around long enough for their kids to truly appreciate them.

For parents who may not be methodical about backing up all their images, the big caveat to digital photography is that images can be deleted or lost as easily as they can be taken. That happened to Emily Murphy, a Pittsburgh-based mother of four who laments that she is terrible at keeping track of her kids’ photos. “I am of the age that I should be somewhat technology savvy, but my attention span is awful,” she told me. “I don’t back up my photos. I am totally inconsistent across all of my devices.” She abruptly realized the depth of the issue when her cellphone died and she lost nearly all the photos of her 1-year-old daughter. “When I couldn’t power the phone on, I knew. I felt like I was a terrible mom.”

While Murphy’s experience is not uncommon, a larger group of parents are more intentionally thinking about how to re-create a version of the shoebox for their kids. The majority of parents I talked with are using some type of cloud-storage service—Dropbox, Google Drive, and iCloud are the biggest ones—while also printing out their favorite photos. Other storage options range from flash drives full of photos, to CDs, to simply keeping old laptops stacked in the closet. But the consensus seems to be that there isn’t yet a consensus on how to preserve photos. In that absence, many parents admit to saving and backing up the photos, but without any organization to them. As one mom, Julia Mueller, quipped about saving photos for her kids, “They can just have my Dropbox password when I die!”

And without any clear best practices for how to preserve images, some parents are opting for more unconventional routes. Brittany Wylie, who lives in Youngstown, Ohio, set up an email account for her daughter, where she regularly sends along images accompanied by written messages that she hopes her 8-year-old will come to appreciate as she gets older. Another mother, Pittsburgh resident Nichole Kindred, took a similar approach: “I created a Facebook account for my son,” she told me, “and I tag him in photos that I post of him.”

Still, the sheer number of photos that some families have amassed can be anxiety-provoking, and can serve as an impediment to preserving them in any coherent fashion. One mother, Seattle-based Siv Fern Eng, told me that she hasn’t found a feasible way to control the mess. She wants to print photo books, but with two young kids whom she’s constantly chasing around the house, the uncompleted task becomes a source of anxiety. “We try to delete bad photos, screenshots from the internet, etc., but it doesn’t always happen,” she told me. “It is better to back up the crap with all the good stuff than not back up at all. Managing all the data is just difficult.” She admits that, without the time to do it herself, she hopes her 6-year-old daughter will eventually want to compile a shoebox herself and will decide what goes in it. “Sorting them right away would be best,” she adds, “but of course it’s not high-priority when you have more urgent things to do.”

For the parents who want to proactively cull and curate all the images they’ve taken, rather than leave their kids with a mélange to sort through, online photo-book services such as Shutterfly, and others that streamline photo preservation using social-media sites, help ease the process. For example, Chatbooks can create a photo book from a specific Instagram feed or hashtag, while My Social Book turns Facebook posts into a so-called keepsake book. Tom Davis and Arwen Lavengood Davis, who live in Eugene, Oregon, used Chatbooks to preserve images of their toddler son Ender; they created an Instagram account where they posted a mix of “firsts,” candids, and professional photos that the service then automatically turned into a physical book. Tom fondly recalls the scrapbooks his grandmother made for him as a child. “We hope Ender gets the same out of these books,” Arwen told me. “It’s not just random pics in a shoebox or on a hard drive. It’s a chronicle of sorts.”

Amid all these various strategies for storing images, Jason Hoover—who runs the site Pixel Parenting—believes that parents today are leaving their kids with something vastly different from the shoebox of snapshots from their own childhood: more photos, but also perhaps more valuable photos. “I think the new way to save memories is through interesting and creative pictures,” he says. “Gone are the days of lining up at every family gathering or looking back at photos trying to figure out where you were by context clues. Hashtags and the amount of description we get to add to digital photos make it so easy to capture a moment.” Deciphering the names, dates, and locations on the bottom of a tattered Polaroid can be difficult, but with digital images, kids are left with detailed descriptors and captions that can jog their memory.

Still, on top of the struggle to re-create the shoebox, an added concern is how to actually store it once it’s been made. While physical images are vulnerable to fire, water damage, and sheer negligence, a sense of security comes with being able to protect something tangible, which can be tough to replicate with digital photos. And the internet is ephemeral—a fact to which any erstwhile MySpace user can attest—making it a fickle source of memory storage. “There is always the possibility that social-sharing sites such as Facebook, Instagram, or Twitter could become extinct in the near future,” says the data-storage expert Chris Davis. He adds that cloud-storage services such as Dropbox and Google Drive are better positioned for the future, but we can’t guarantee that they’ll be around in a decade, let alone two or three.

The professional photographer Enzo Sica says that having both a secure digital and physical presence is the best method that exists thus far. In other words: Print, print, print. Even if it’s not on archival-grade paper placed into fireproof boxes, having physical images heightens the chance that they will actually withstand the test of time.

Of course, what ultimately matters for kids as they age is the wistful memories of childhood, not a collection of stilted photographs taken moments after Mom yelled “Cheese!” That being said, the latter can help with the former: The ability to look back on childhood photographs can help strengthen and retain those memories. So, for parents, the chance to update and reinvent the shoebox can be enticing—that is, just as long as they always remember to back up their phones and keep track of their images.