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.
Toddler selfies can largely be understood as a technologically souped-up spin on little kids’ well-known tendency to play with mirrors. “They’re just exploring who they are, how their face works. And how good they look,” McLean said, adding that the way kids interact with front-facing smartphone cameras seems much more like the way they interact with mirrors than the way they’ve historically interacted with other kinds of cameras. “Before digital technology, it wasn’t a big thrill to snap a picture of yourself, only to wait a week for it to come back.”
Toddlers are also squarely in the process of developing autonomy and of learning to do things on their own; McLean identifies toddlerhood and the preschool years as the “I do it!” phase, in which kids are particularly jazzed about being in control of how they interact with their surroundings. Plus, toddlers and preschoolers tend to incorporate a lot of what they see adults do into their own play—hence why some kids like to “parent” their toys. Kids nowadays tend to see their parents use smartphones quite frequently, not just for communication and entertainment, but also to take pictures of the kids themselves. Commandeering a camera phone to take pictures of one’s face is a perfect blend of things toddlers love: seeing their own face and body, being in control of a device, and doing stuff grown-ups do. (As kids get older, McLean pointed out, they also understand that they can photograph themselves as a way to leave a funny surprise for their parents to discover. “That’s when the mischief comes in,” she said.)
In an age when kids can easily be exposed to sketchy content disguised as children’s programming and deceptive in-app purchases, not to mention boatloads of powerfully sneaky advertising, it’s important for parents to keep an eye on what kids do when they have access to smartphones, McLean said. But she sees selfie-taking as a far less nefarious kind of screen time than playing games or watching videos.
Adam Pletter, a child psychologist and the founder of iParent 101, a resource for helping kids maintain a healthy relationship with technology, told me he largely agrees that taking pictures, whether of oneself or of one’s surroundings, is a different kind of screen time. But he pointed out that the ease with which many kids can unlock a smartphone and open its camera might just as easily lead them to other apps and features that are less suitable for them. “I wouldn’t encourage parents to hand over the device for [kids] to take pictures just because it might be developmentally appropriate for them to learn what their face looks like,” Pletter said. “I think that happens plenty organically.”
Certainly, as Pletter noted, kids don’t really need the help of a digital device to gaze at their reflections or familiarize themselves with their face; after all, kids got along just fine for millennia without selfies. But toddler selfies, when kept for posterity, do serve a novel purpose for parents: They provide lasting (and readily accessible) glimpses of a stage of childhood that used to be much harder to photograph.
Smith, who frequently reminds her son that her phone doesn’t have room for all his self-portraits, nonetheless keeps a few for herself, just to look at sometimes. “I could be having a bad day and I’ll just open up my camera roll and there’s his little smiling face,” she said.
Parents didn’t have such easy access to so many candid images of their kids 150 years ago—or even 25 years ago. Back when photographs were a much more difficult and tedious thing to come by, they captured few authentic emotions from any subjects; even in the age of the personal film camera, unposed toddlers were way harder to capture in still photos. But the smartphone selfies toddlers take, McLean pointed out, can provide parents with charming, emotionally genuine photographs of their children at an age that’s particularly full of wonder and confidence.
“A posed picture of your child perfectly dressed and coiffed, that’s not reality,” McLean told me. Photos that kids take of themselves, however, with their baby teeth on display and their tongue hanging out, “are precious mementos,” she said. “Toddlers think that they are amazing. This is a time when children are so unselfconscious, so accepting of how they look and who they are.”
McLean, who has adult children of her own, also noted that parents who are constantly deleting kid selfies from their camera rolls will likely come to treasure these weird digital gifts. “When you’re dealing with your sullen teenager,” she said, “sometimes you need to look back and remember how joyful they were at the age of 2.”