National Geographic photographers have a guiding principle by which they photograph: never manipulate the subjects for a shot. Their mission is to capture the wild of life and interfering with a scene would by virtue negate its wildness. They would no more leave a gazelle tied to a tree to entice a grey wolf, than fix a bonnet to a baby elephant (as adorable as the latter would be). They let the wild speak for itself, unadulterated.
American living rooms and the children that fill them are many a mile from the Mongolian steppe and the gazelle that leaps through. But, parents document their children with the same vigor and devotion as the photographer documents the leaping mammal and much of it ends up on social media.
It is estimated that parents will post an average of 1000 pictures of their child before that child reaches five years old. According to the Pew Research Center, 75% of parents are on social media and 25% of that number is on Instagram. In this endlessly scrolling world, might parents borrow the heart of the guiding Nat Geo principle when it concerns ‘gramming their kids?
American children are not living in a wild habitat. They live in the habitat that their parents—the photographers—have created for them. Parents, by virtue of their job, are constantly manipulating this habitat. They buy the clothes, wipe faces, brush hair. Parents are their child’s schedulers, their wardrobe, their hair and makeup, their secretaries, bodyguards, advocates, and lobbyists. Most notably in the iPhone Age they are the paparazzi, the documentarians; constantly thrusting the smooth, rectangular extensions of their hands into daily life.
Unlike with the wildlife photographer, there is no clear line on Instagram to distinguish when parental manipulation of the subject’s behavior goes too far.
Where does the line lie between coaxing a baby to smile for the camera and placing that same blinking infant in the grass in the spoon of a dozing unicorn with daisies strewn artfully around the pair? She didn’t just fall asleep like that. The world isn’t that perfectly magical.
The world is that accidentally magical. Parents witness it everyday in their kids—or nearly every day depending on sleep and sugar levels. And yet, the allure of setting and sharing the perfect photo is consuming. Imagine an impossibly clean living room, pillows fluffed, fresh flowers smiling. A cookie sits on the coffee table waiting to entice the wild animal as she walks through and into the apple-d frame of the iPhone. A 2015 study by Joseph Grenny and David Maxfield found that 79% of respondents have witnessed a parent undermine their experience in their child’s life to get the “perfect post”. Maxfield writes, “If our attention is on an invisible audience rather than the present moment, we are disconnected. Our devices are beginning to control our attention and motivations in ways we may not even realize.”
Users will agree in hackneyed-unison that Instagram is an excellent way to keep up with friends. Instagram is also a forum to bounce ideas, a marketplace to create and sell, an avenue for friendship, a bosom for activism. Most infamously, Instagram has become a way to show just how wonderful, inspiring, and orderly the ‘grammer’s life is. The platform is entirely visual. The posted photo is a half second to say, “Look how pretty, now listen to me!” It is more difficult to successfully impart: My house is a mess and the kid is throwing a tantrum, but I have some worthy things to say, just give me a chance!
The Grenny study also found that 58% of respondents report that getting a picture perfect for a post has prevented them from enjoying life experiences. The procession of Instagram perfection creates a self-sustaining cycle. The more saturated it becomes of admirably curated kids, the more rare the photo of an unadulterated childhood a-mess and askew.
Instagram itself offers few guidelines to navigate this ethical balance. They keep it simple in their Tips for Parents page (no nudity, no child pornography) leaving parents to navigate the balance.
How then can parents post photos of their children while respecting the sanctity of childhood and parenthood? Parents could do well to create personal guidelines in the vein of National Geographic. Grenny and Maxfield offer recommendations for social media use as a whole that could easily be adapted for Instagram moms and dads:
Look at yourself
If other adults were in the room, what would they think about your setting up of the shot?
Limit your postings
Consider limiting Instagram use to once a day, thereby removing the specter of posting and scrolling from the rest of your day.
Snap, look, and listen
Take the photo and then get back to enjoying their childhood.
At times, Instagram is an endless procession of beautiful clothes, enviable vacations, and well-behaved children. But, to what expense does that come to the lives outside the phone? Adam Alter warns last month in the New York Times, “We’ve become obsessed with how many ‘likes’ our Instagram photos are getting instead of where we are walking and whom we are talking to.” If parents were to heed this warning and the conclusions of the Grenny study, they may find themselves emulating their Nat Geo counterparts; capturing their wild animals living their wild life.