Reportedly, the front-facing cellphone camera was originally intended to be a way for business colleagues to teleconference one another while they were working in separate locations. Introduced in Japan in 1999 and the United States four years later, it was not initially a widely heralded innovation. And its inventors probably did not anticipate that it would inspire a new genre of photography—the selfie—or become a beloved plaything for toddlers all over the globe.
Many parents today know what to expect when they wrest their smartphones from their young children, who have been entertaining themselves in their car seat, or waiting for a snack, or playing nearby while their sibling takes a bath: a camera roll full of oddly avant-garde, poorly focused, poorly framed self-portraits. Toddler selfies are a 21st-century expression of several age-old tendencies of this stage in childhood development—and while they certainly raise questions about kids’ relationship to technology, they also offer a unique new way for parents to hang on to memories of a challenging but joyous time in their children’s life.
Some toddler selfies appear in large, camera-roll-dominating batches that have a flipbook (or Cindy Sherman) quality to them. Others are just single snapshots of foreheads, perhaps with a surprised eyebrow peeking into the frame. Parents are fond of posting their toddlers’ selfies online. As one mother wrote in a tweet that contained a pair of photos of the ceiling and her child’s blurry face, “If you don’t have a camera roll full of blasts like this, are you even a parent of a toddler?” On Instagram, the hashtag #toddlerselfie has been affixed to more than 32,000 photos. When Nicole Smith, a mom of three in Asheville, North Carolina, got an alert last summer that she was running out of storage space on her iPhone, she opened her camera roll and found to her amusement that her oldest son, now 4, had hijacked her phone and taken a bunch of extreme close-ups of his face a month before. “I told him to pick a couple of them and we’d keep them and post them [to Instagram], but we had to delete the rest,” she told me. (She ended up tweeting one.) “He was like, ‘Don’t worry, Mommy. I’ll take more!’”
This is what your camera roll turns into once you have a toddler pic.twitter.com/TANCAzyl4b— lex (@alexisruth70) October 8, 2019
Toddlers are attracted to the front-facing smartphone camera for a few reasons. For starters, there’s what many parents (and grandparents, aunts, uncles, and babysitters) already know: “Toddlers are delighted with themselves,” says Christine McLean, who teaches in the Children and Youth Study department at Nova Scotia’s Mount Saint Vincent University. From the ages of 1 to 3, McLean told me, kids rapidly develop a sense of individual identity, making sense of the fact that they are separate humans from their moms and dads, and for most kids, that’s a pretty exciting prospect.