Instagram, My 3-Year-Old Daughter, and Me

Photo: Tang Ming Tung/Getty Images

I began using Instagram the way I did most social platforms in the late aughts: begrudgingly. I found the app’s concept pointless, a waste of time. Wasn’t Facebook for sharing photos? But more and more of my friends joined each day, and my resolve began to waver, until inevitably, it crumbled. Oh well, I thought, as I uploaded my first photo. I’m smirking sideways at the Tournée du Chat Noir calendar I’d picked up in Epcot a few years prior. “They say crazy things happen on Friday the 13th,” I wrote. “Like Carla using Instagram?”

That was six years ago. Since then, my followers have witnessed my relationships, my job changes, my Halloween costumes, my insecurities and idiosyncrasies, the birth of my daughter three years ago, and now, in photographic increments, her childhood development. I set rules for myself when she was born, feeling conscious of the new complexities of being a person online and a parent. I locked my account. I monitored my content with her in mind: Could this video seriously humiliate her ten years from now? Was I about to post the third photo of her in a row?

Still, I pressed on. If this platform could give me the ability to present a glossy, curated life, then I was going to take full advantage. This is me: competent and caring. This is us: sunlit and smiling. This is my life: memorable, meaningful. I scrolled through filters, deliberated over my captions. I could fill another account with what I’ve later regretted and deleted.

According to a March 2018 Pew Research study, Americans aged 30 to 49 reported that they use the internet almost as much as adults 18 to 29 — which is to say, essentially, all the time. Of the 77 percent of Americans who find themselves on the internet every day, 26 percent admit to being online “almost constantly,” 43 percent clock in at a mere “several times a day,” and the remaining 8 percent are presumably pending canonization for going online either once a day, a few times a week, or not at all.

My daughter, now three, is acutely attuned to the siren lure of electronics. Phones, specifically. If she spots one sitting unattended, she grabs it immediately. Our brief tussles for my phone have become routine — she gives up pretty quickly, resigned to losing the battle but determined to wage it nonetheless. Sometimes, I’m too tired to fight and watch to see what she actually does with this rare, unfettered access. The other day, she shot me wary glances as her thumbs tapped the glass, opening and immediately closing apps, scrolling meaninglessly through my home screens. “I need to text somebody,” she said, lips pursed in concentration.

“Oh? Who are you texting?”

“I need to send a text to Daddy.”

When she watches YouTube videos of Maya the Bee or PJ Masks on public transit, jabbing “Skip Ad” has become second nature. “Mommy, it’s buffering!” she’ll complain when a poor connection conjures the dreaded spinning wheel. She can impatiently swipe away incoming texts more quickly than I can register the sender’s name. Lethargy tends to trigger nostalgia: “I wanna see baby pictures,” she’ll demand, curling up in my lap and waiting for me to open Google Photos to scroll backwards through three years of memories.

I remember my own mother ducking, protesting loudly, every time anyone tried to take her photo. Unless it was an occasion that warranted picture-taking, like a wedding, trying to snap a candid photo was easily one of the most egregious sins you could commit against her. I always wondered why, until I didn’t. It just became law: don’t try to take pictures of Mom.

Like my mother, I squealed and shielded myself from cameras for a period of time — and all that I have to show for those theatrics now is a distinct lack of photos from my middle- and high-school years. I’m naturally awkward; I still struggle with my body image and the “too many limbs” sensation that activates whenever anyone points a camera in my direction. But I think about my daughter, always watching, imitating, learning.

I remember being a child and watching home videos of myself three, five, ten years prior with a mix of pride and embarrassment. According to my mother, “I wanna watch Carla!” was a familiar request of mine, symptoms of an early onset narcissism-lite that I am now tickled to see reincarnated in my daughter. I’ve always appreciated record-keeping — photographic, epistolary — as a sort of re-orientation of my present with my past selves. It’s both enlightening and humbling; my preferred way of staying grounded.

But Eve has never touched a DVD player, much less its more unwieldy ancestor, the VHS machine, and physical photographs are novelty items that are immediately framed, not tossed into piles and fanned across pages of worn leather albums. In her world, memories are compact, polished, and almost exclusively accessible through small, delicate machines. The poses I struck for the camera as a child were for a different sort of audience: an intimate, familiar one, and certainly only people I or my family members knew. Now, photos are usually taken to be uploaded somewhere, and the potential consequences of this sharing technology require mental justifications that I often try not to think too hard about.

As I stage a shot, adjusting Eve’s hair and begging, “Look at me! Look at the camera!” I’m also wondering, who am I trying to appeal to? I can admit that I do have an agenda — I’m just not sure what, exactly, it is. Am I actually instilling some meaningful lesson about confidence? Or, am I just teaching her how to lie?

“I’m putting this photo of us on Instagram, okay?” Sometimes I’ll try to gauge her understanding of what I’m doing when I post, wanting to include her, to introduce her to the wacky parlance of the sharing economy she was born into. Sometimes I’ll read the comments to her, let her know exactly how many people wished her a happy birthday. “This got one hundred and seventeen likes!” She’ll respond in a puzzled affirmative, parroting my positive tone, before trying to snatch my phone to study my social engagement herself.

I’m not sure I know how to model a healthy relationship with technology when my own perception of its usefulness and value is constantly changing. I’m still reeling, a bit, from witnessing its rapid evolution: from screeching dial-up connections and landlines bound by whorls of wire to Alexa and wireless headphones. I’ve been coerced into adapting, but I still have no real estimation of the long-term effects of this change. And now I’m attempting to teach my daughter how to live comfortably, freely, within this state of surveillance and existence curation, hoping that she’ll find a steadier footing than I have. In the meantime, I’ll continue my record-keeping. I’m sure it’ll be illuminating one day, in ways none of us can quite imagine.

Instagram, My 3-Year-Old Daughter, and Me