As the 2014 Academy Awards aired downstairs, I overheard the family’s commentary as host(-ess) Elaine DeGeneres – I don’t even know which title is considered correct anymore – gathered A-list celebrities for what was subsequently billed as the “Best Selfie Ever”. It’s the latest and most fame-riddled in a long list of shots taken since the rise of the smartphone but the practice leads me to wonder about the effect of such activities on the kids who are now billed as the “smartphone generation”. What should parents consider about letting their kids have access to take “selfies”?
The practice is here to stay as iPads and smartphones have become ubiquitous in today’s culture. When I took Middle to the local Social Security Administration office to replace a lost card, he was taken aback by the presence of toddlers – no exaggeration here – who were waiting with their own iPhones; while mothers and fathers plunked away on their own, these kids were swiping away at apps and taking more than a few selfies. The practice has gained increasing increasing public attention, especially as more parents are allowing the kids to play with the smartphones. There’s already the question of how much access should a toddler or preschooler have to a smartphone or an iPad, but the ability to take an almost unlimited number of photos of themselves leads to legitimate questions about the impact upon child development.
The linked article, republished in various forums in the US, raises some of the issues but I believe misses the largest point. It’s natural that the kids want to see pictures of themselves since children are, by nature, egocentric beings. All that they know when they are very young is the small world of themselves and their family and because they are incapable of caring for themselves, all obviously revolves around them. Yes, seeing photos of themselves can help develop a self-image but I honestly wonder whether seeing yet another photo of themselves leads to a healthy self-image. Perhaps the major point made by critics of the unlimited access to selfies is that it feeds the problem of instant gratification since the kid can see the digital image immediately and then, with a swipe of a finger, make it disappear if it’s not to their liking. There’s no having to wait for the results and no exercise of the valuable practice of patience. But I believe that while the self-gratification point is valid, it’s just one more pebble on the already massive pile of society’s practices that already promote instant gratification. The large issue is that it promotes and contributes to the narcissistic tendencies that already exist in today’s young generations. Multiple studies support the thesis that today’s kids are far more self-absorbed than previous generations. The rise in permissive and helicopter parenting, the excessive use of praise and the onset of online social media platforms – remember Xanga? – that allow peers to like their buds for absolutely nothing of value have all contributed to this narcissism. But allowing the kids to have unfettered access from a very young age will only reinforce the narcissistic tendencies from an even younger age and make the personality trait even more set in concrete than before.
It’s natural to expect some narcissism from youngsters and I remember time spent in my ‘tween/teen bedroom examining my visage and profile, mugging at the mirror and trying on different hats and looks as I explored my self-image and personality. It’s natural for kids to do that as they pass through various phases until they finally arrive at their adult personality and that’s frankly why I’ve never been terribly upset at the various looks, boyfriends/girlfriends and musical tastes that have come through the PracticalDad household…because what’s happening now with the kids isn’t necessarily permanent. Wow, he’s been listening to Swedish Death Ska for three months…and now he’s listening to Mumford. But my job as a parent is to raise the kids to make their way in the world as productive and moral adults, able to survive on their own and even make the place a little better, and that requires a person who can look outwards and see what’s occurring around them; this is the antithesis of the narcissistic personality whose insularity keeps them looking inwards and hence unable to comprehend what might be hurtling in their direction let alone how their behaviors affect others.
So what to do? First, give serious consideration to how much you let the kids handle the smartphone; it’s a convenient, pocket-sized babysitter that’s of value on occasion but the kid won’t learn patience if he’s plugged into the Matrix whenever nothing’s going on. Second, if you let the kids take some selfies, go ahead and delete their selfies in their presence. While I don’t have a smartphone, I’ve let the kids mess with my digital camera and take selfies; when I’ve gone back through the memory card and seen them, I’ve deleted the photos in their presence just to drive the point home that excessive use is simply a waste of a memory card that could be taken up with photos of real value and meaning. Trust me, it’s certainly garnered looks of hurt but a little dose of humility isn’t going to hurt them. Third, make sure that you model appropriate behavior by not engaging in such behavior in their presence unless it’s of merit, such as an event or trip.