Everyone knows how hard it is to keep kids away from digital devices. After all, they're shiny and glittery and grown-ups are staring at them all the time. As ever more tech winds up in sticky little hands, some parents are wondering, does letting your toddler take selfies turn them into a narcissist? As TIME Magazine pointed out, worries like these abound whenever new technology surfaces, and every generation must learn to navigate something new and potentially frightening — think of those poor parents of baby boomers, learning to reckon with television.
Socrates famously worried that the invention of writing would diminish memories — in fact, according to Psychology Today, it did. So even ancient and venerable technologies inevitably affect the brain, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't use them. After all, nobody would even know about Socrates's concerns if Plato hadn't written them down.
Somehow though, the selfie seems different. More — well — selfish. Romper reached out to Dr. Maureen Healy, writer of the Psychology Today blog Raising Media Healthy Children and author of the book Growing Happy Kids. According to Healy, "narcissism is a complex and sophisticated diagnosis that involves nature (one's biology, personality) and nurture. We don't want the nurture to plant any narcissistic seeds." Her concern is that allowing young children to take limitless photos of themselves might well plant a seed of obsessive self-regard.
However, Healy understands that kids raised today will naturally want to experiment with mom or dad's phone, so the simple fact that your kid took a picture of themselves and loved it shouldn't set off alarm bells. Likely, your child is just excited to experiment with this new way of seeing themselves and the world. She does caution, however, that when it comes to phones, moderation is key. Learn to set healthy media boundaries. If you're uncertain what steps to take, consult an expert for advice, or talk to your pediatrician.
So, letting your toddler take a selfie probably won't instantly transform them into a raging narcissist. But consider your own actions. According to Healy, "narcissism in children is usually a learned behavior." She finds that "children oftentimes grow up mirroring their parents — so if you have a mom, dad, or caregiver that is consistently modeling narcissistic behaviors, it is difficult as a child to realize those aren't healthy."
Basically, everyone should pause to consider just how many selfies they're taking, and how much time they're spending curating their social media image, because kids learn what's most worth their time and attention from watching everyone.
Romper also spoke with Dr. Paul L. Hokemeyer, a marriage and family therapist who sees other potential harms hidden in selfie culture. He reminds us that selfies aren't just taken, but are also carefully selected and even edited to present us at our best. According to Hokemeyer,
"Selfies are about self-admiration. They provide people of all ages constant opportunities to obsess about their looks and their external presentation ... By encouraging your child to take selfies and critiquing them, you're telling your child in subtle and not so subtle ways that their appearance matters and that you love them for the way they look. It also sets them up to be harshly self critical."
Narcissism aside, Hokemeyer cautions that kids who internalize these messages might well struggle to form meaningful relationships in the future.
But can the power of the selfie be harnessed for good?
According to Hokemeyer, selfies and wefies can also be used to teach children about their emotions, and might even present opportunities for "discussing the breadth of the human experience and letting them know it's wonderful to be a dynamic and diverse human, rather than a perfect object."
As a new parent myself, I worry about the increasingly digital, visual world my daughter is growing up in. According to the experts consulted, however, there's cause to be careful, but no reason to be afraid. Selfies are just another form of technology, which is, at its core, just another tool of communication. The invention of writing frightened Socrates, but I think most would agree that the benefits of the written word vastly outweighed its risks. How we communicate does matter, but what we communicate — especially when it comes to our children — matters just as much, if not more.