As Leticia, clad in a fluttering pink bridesmaid’s dress, walked to the center of the rose garden ahead of the bride, my 7-year-old reached his hand sideways, groping for my purse. He located his camera, held it up, and began snapping photos of his beloved babysitter in this beautiful setting. “I can show her later,” he said, putting down his dinged-up old Canon with the burned-out circle in the top left of the screen. “She might want to see.”
I also have a younger son, who is 3. Anyone with multiple kids is familiar with the Law of Conservation of Object Possession: For any item of desire obtained by Kid A, an analog must also be obtained by Kid B.
So the 3-year-old got his own camera. It’s a cute little thing, with grippy side handles and a binocular-style viewfinder. But oh, the interface. You can take photos, yes. But you can also festoon them with stamps and frames and even use them to play games. The camera makes a lot of uncameralike bloopy sound effects. I had given him something that I hoped would be a heads-up experience for him, but what he had in his hands was something that, to my mind, just pulled his gaze down into his lap.
“Children go out in the world, they look, they see–and a camera is another way for them to capture that,” says Tovah P. Klein, director of the Barnard College Center for Toddler Development and author of How Toddlers Thrive. “You were putting him in the world to look around.” And the stamps and games? “Those took him out of it.” The digital add-ons are a distraction that pulls their focus (literally) away from picture-taking and into a world of silly hats and goofy effects. And developmentally, little kids are very bad at filtering out distractions. “The more simple the toy they’re given,” Klein says, “the more they discover for themselves.”
The me who wants to just get the dishes done was secretly OK with how face-sucking this camera was. But the me who frets about the Deleterious Impact Screens Are Having On the Young won out, and I was tragically, inexplicably unable to fix the camera after it “broke” one day. He has a no-frills one now, and his dad wondered if it was too boring. He didn’t have to worry.
“We seem to feel that we have an obligation to entertain our children every second of every day. And we don’t want to give them two seconds to get bored,” says Michael Rich, director of the Center on Media and Child Health at Harvard and author of online advice column “Ask the Mediatrician.” “Boredom is where creativity is born. Boredom is not the enemy. Boredom is the friend. Boredom is what gives rise to ‘What happens when I take a picture between my fingers? What happens when I turn the camera sideways?'”
I’ll just be over here patting myself on the back. Except. As I was writing this, I scrolled through all the photos my younger son had taken. (I fixed the silly camera by, uh, flipping one of the batteries back around.) On it I found shaky pictures of our Roomba. One Blair Witch-esque selfie. Photos of tabletops.
But there was something else: shots of his older brother taking his own pictures on his own camera. For all its distractions and hot dog overlays, the bloopy camera was still a beautiful, if blurry, record of two boys, heads up, looking out at the world, taking pictures together.