“I want to watch myself!” cries my daughter, any time there’s a cell phone pointed at her. She anticipates the video before it’s even finished recording. Watching one’s self—immediately, before the moment is over, is the new toddler milestone. Forget first sentences, learning letters and trying new foods; many of the young kids I know have Kardashian levels of awareness about the cameras we carry in our pockets.
I remember when I was a kid, and the only person I knew who owned a video camera was my Uncle Mike, who lived 40 miles away down a two-lane desert highway. I looked forward to our visits, when my cousins and I could goof around with the camera. We’d make spoofs of daytime talk shows and Mister Rogers Neighborhood, and then laugh ourselves silly watching them. The impulse was the same as today, but the opportunities were far fewer.
A lot of parents and experts feel anxiety about this new ubiquity of cameras. What do all these photos and videos do to our kids’ sense of self? Are we raising a generation of image obsessed YouTubers who will spend their lives consumed with their image on a screen? Judith Myers-Walls, a psychologist and parenting expert, is just one of the many voices cautioning us about the roll of photos and video in our lives. She warns, “We need to keep track of what values we are communicating by taking [pictures] and posting and distributing [them.]” She claims that excessive focus on images of children by themselves (without the social context of the family) might make them “think they are the center of the universe.” And then there are fears about what images our kids are posting online and how childhood mistakes may haunt them in the future. Some days, the impulse is strong to just shout “Get off my lawn!” and curl up in a media-free cocoon.
But video as a daily part of our lives isn’t going anywhere. And our cameras are only getting cheaper, better and more omnipresent. Nine years ago, YouTube was attracting roughly 63,000 unique viewers per month. Compare that to today, when Google (mainly via its property, YouTube) was the #1 video viewing site with 144.6 MILLION unique viewers in February. Thirteen to 24-year-olds are now watching more YouTube than they are television. Even Dr. Myers-Walls doesn’t suggest that we put away the cameras entirely. Our kids will likely make and consume video in ways we can’t even imagine.
As a video professional, I see the accessibility of quality video cameras as an opportunity to teach our children how to use video to communicate in powerful and positive ways—and to become makers with voices of their own, rather than just consumers. Today, we don’t need a network to broadcast a set of carefully vetted ideas. We can tell our own stories on Facebook and YouTube. That democratization of technology comes with certain responsibilities, but it also radically levels the playing field for sharing each of our unique points of view. It’s our job as parents to make sure that our children are fully developed people with something to say – to help give our kids content to put in the video container. Instead of selfies and sexting, we can make our cameras address local politics or our family stories or any number of things.
Rather than look at cell phone videos as something that turns us into self-absorbed monsters, we can embrace them as a unique opportunity to teach our kids to tell their own stories and the stories of the people around us. Think of the work that organizations like Witness do to capture the stories of human rights abuses on affordable video technology. How about the quick thinking of bystanders with cell phone cameras who document police brutality? Their efforts have galvanized the public to demand law enforcement reform.
Now, I’m not saying our children should be undertaking massive political projects with their cell phone cameras, but I am saying that video is a tool, and we how we use that tool is entirely up to us. We, as parents, can flip the script about cell phone videos and their place in our lives. We can turn this tool outward, to help us and our children engage with the world around us, rather than spend our lives with the lens pointed back toward ourselves. Here are a few suggestions for ways you can encourage your children to develop a constructive relationship with the camera:
Tell a Story: Storytelling has been an essential glue of human societies as long as we’ve had language. Help your kids record themselves telling a story – either about something they did or experienced, or a story they made up. For younger kids, you can record a story for them that they might watch while you’re making dinner or even when you’re away from home.
Talk to a Family Member: Have your child record older family members talking about when they were little. You can help them come up with specific questions or things they might wonder about, or for younger ones, you can prompt them with questions.
Make a Documentary: Shoot video of something that’s going on in the neighborhood. It could be as simple as a block party or a new puppy, or something as complex as a local political issue. After you film the event, you can ask the participants questions about what they did or experienced.
Most importantly, creating a positive relationship with video is about setting parameters. There is a time and place for video, and equally important moments when the camera should be firmly off. Think ahead with your children about times that they might want to film. Is Grandma coming for a visit? Set aside a few minutes to record her talking about her past. Do they have something they want to say and share? Talk them through it before they hit record. If we can help our kids create meaningful content, we will set them up for a future that’s more than just an endless stream of duckface selfies on Instagram. Let’s make the video in our lives count.
Contributor, Heather Weyrick, also known as The Video Mom, is a TV Producer-turned home video expert and the mother of 2.5-year-old Iris. She teaches parents to shoot, organize and edit amazing home videos. You can check out all her video tips and projects at thevideomom.com.
Follow her on Twitter: @thevideomom