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Toddlers are taking selfies?!

February 24, 2014

The Oxford English Dictionary actually declared “selfie” the “word of the year” in 2013! That is hard to imagine for parents like me; my first cell phone weighed three pounds! Now smart phones are everywhere and our children are connected to the rest of the world with the tap of a screen.

The word “selfie” was first used in 2002 by an Australian man while posting a photo of himself after he fell in a drunken stupor and cut open his lip. What a comment on modern culture! But the “selfie” is here to stay, so we’d better get used to it and figure out how to help our children be more constructive about it. In fact, the most recent buzz on the internet has to do with “toddler selfies!” Hopefully, they aren’t posting to social websites, but some toddlers will happily snap away, taking photos of themselves, if given the chance. Is this okay? What will they do as teens?

Toddler selfies can be a good thing!

As parents share smart devices with toddlers, children under two years old can easily learn how to use a front-facing camera to snap photos of themselves. Toddlers LOVE to look at their own faces, so this selfie interest is developmentally healthy. When my toddlers were little we had a large mirror on the wall in their playroom, and they loved to make faces in front of that mirror and watch themselves play. The idea that “I am a person with feelings and I can express those feelings with my face” is a very important part of toddlers’ social development. This is also why toddlers love to look at books with babies’ faces. One of my children’s favorite books was called “What Do Babies Do?” by Debby Slier. Each page had a photo of a baby with a specific facial expression or doing something familiar. We read that book over and over, talking about what each baby was doing and feeling. This is how toddlers learn to interpret how other feel.

It is a long step from looking at books together to handing your baby your smart phone to sit and take pictures of himself. But does it have to be? As with all technology, it depends upon how we let our children use it. Would I have handed my child the “What Do Babies Do?” book and just let him sit there and read it alone? No, we read it together. We practiced the faces and talked about the feelings. Selfies can be used in the same way.

Consider positive ways to use technology

I am going to share two scenarios with you and propose a parenting challenge:

Scenario one: You are making dinner. Your toddler is needy. You are having trouble getting things done. You give your phone to your child, who happily snaps photos of herself for 10 minutes. She gets bored. You change the app to a game and give it back to her. She amuses herself for another 10 minutes. She gets bored. You change the app to a video, and she settles in to watch that for 20 minutes while you finish dinner. Does this sound familiar?

Scenario two: You are making dinner. Your toddler is needy. You are having trouble getting things done. You give her a bowl, a spoon and your phone. You talk about what you are cooking and you encourage her to “cook” too. Maybe she snaps some photos of herself cooking. You talk about what she is cooking (while you keep cooking), and you talk about her photos with her. You smear a little bit of your dinner on her nose and then talk about the photo she takes of herself with food on her nose and you laugh together. You encourage her to take a picture of you cooking and you talk about that too. You encourage her to take a “selfie” of the two of you cooking together and, again, you talk about what you are doing together.  Get the picture?

Technology and social media are here to stay, making parenting that much more challenging. It is our responsibility to help our children learn to use social media in healthy ways. No one wants their young adult to be the one who posts the selfie of herself injured or drunk. We can prevent that by teaching our children from the beginning how to present themselves and look at themselves in connection with the important people in their lives while doing things that matter.

Imagine a generation of teens posting selfies while doing productive and meaningful things with others. This is where I hope we will guide our children.

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