A lighthearted look at news, events, culture and everyday life in New York. The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.
By Nina Pajak
Last week, the AP ran a story about toddlers obsessed with taking selfies and viewing photos and videos of themselves on their parents’ smartphones. Cue behavioral specialists and parents fretting about the toll growing up in “the iPhone age” will take on this generation’s patience and fixation on immediate gratification, not to mention their egos. And they go on to wonder whether they’ll be deprived of the specialness of growing up with certain framed baby pictures defining your childhood memories and standing out in your mind as you age.
So, well, yes. To all of it. And also, uh oh.
Though my child is only nine months old, I am already extremely guilty of relying on the phone and my daughter’s fascination with her own image. I regularly take “selfies” of her, because letting her see herself on the screen is the only way to look in the direction of the camera, let alone smile. When she’s grouchy, I play back videos I took of her, because nothing—and I mean nothing—gets her excited like watching herself in action. If she waves in the video, she waves back to herself. If she babbles, she responds in kind. It’s a hoot. And on a day when she’s determined to be ornery and inconsolable, it’s become a near-necessity.
But I worry! Oh, how I worry. Is she becoming unduly obsessed with herself? Babies are naturally drawn to and charmed by their own reflections, and I’d imagine parents have been calming cranky infants by spending hours in front of the mirror since mirrors became a household staple hundreds of years ago. There’s pretty much no lower-tech way to entertain a kidlet. So is there something inherently worse about putting this principle to work with an iPhone instead of doing it the old-fashioned way? My instinct is “yes,” though I can’t quite explain why. Perhaps it’s just the fear that everything new and different will lead to the next generation’s downfall. It’s not how we grew up. It must be dangerous. Again, I’m guessing this has been the refrain of parents dating back to the Stone Age.
“Ugh. Baby like fire so much. My day, we stare at rock. We eat raw meat. Kids today weak. Need constant entertainment. Is end of civilization, mark my word.”
I’m paraphrasing, but I’m pretty sure that’s roughly how cave-people spoke.
It’s hard to separate out how much of this paranoia is part of the natural progression of society, and how much of it is warranted. Do I know toddlers whose every video ends with the child saying, “I see video?” Yes. Yes I do. And is it wrong that I find it hilarious and adorable? It’s hilarious and adorable! Of course this new digital landscape will change the way people behave. There’s really no way around it. But so has every innovation changed its subsequent generations. For the worse, in some ways, but also for the better. I suppose it’s the only way humans can keep moving forward, and there will always be trade-offs. So I don’t think it’s our job as parents to protect our kids from the pitfalls of new technology by attempting to ignore it and recreate our own, “healthier” childhood experiences, despite how badly we’d like that. All we can do is roll with it and help our offspring to navigate it, embrace the good, reject the awful, and become good—albeit different—people.
This, naturally, feels like a daunting and terrifying task that goes far beyond the troubles associated with growing up selfie-obsessed. As terrifying as it already is that kids are online all the time, sharing personal information with strangers and tormenting one another from the safety of their own bedrooms, it’s only going to get scarier and more confusing. Right now, I’m still young enough to understand at least some of what’s out there. But I’ll just keep falling further and further behind until I’ve become my mother, a very smart lady who disabled text messaging on her flip phone and who thinks that having Microsoft Word is what defines a device as a computer. It’s only a matter of time. I don’t even understand SnapChat.
I suppose our jobs, then, as rapidly-aging people-shepherds responsible for raising a new crop of decent individuals in spite of the brain-rot that threatens to infect us all via our awesome LCD screens, is to simply try to pay attention. Far more insidious than a toddler’s love for an iPhone is his or her parents’ own preoccupation with it. As long as our children are smearing our phones and tablets with their sticky little fingers and filling our storage with close-up photos of their nostrils, it means we’re empty-handed, watching them. It’s not at all easy to stick to this, but it’s something I’m trying to keep in mind. Though my fingers itch to check Twitter as we enter hour five of a day with no naps, and as I watch my baby gleefully hurl my phone around the room and repeatedly attempt to put it in her mouth, I must remind myself that it’s all for the best.
Also, every once in a while, we should probably set the phone aside and head back to the plain old mirror. It can’t hurt.
Nina Pajak is a writer living with her husband, daughter and dog in Queens. Connect with Nina on Twitter!