"Babies are brilliant!": what's behind the increasing trend of social media baby bragging?

Why do we feel the need to "share" pictures of children for others to gawp at on social media? Lulu Le Vay argues that there's more to this smug hollering about our reproductive successes than meets the eye.

"Babies are brilliant!" screeches the Facebook status update of a suspiciously over-enthusiastic new mother. This woman is, by my own click-of-acceptance, a member of my online social circle - an ex-colleague from a decade ago. Attached to this slightly manic declaration is a gurgling grinning small bald human being. The sex of this generic-looking subject seems to be irrelevant. It also doesn’t appear to have a name.

Babies being "brilliant" in the context of this statement seems to be referring to all babies ever born. And not about this particular child in question. There was a moment when I started to suspect a pro-life subtext hidden beneath what would initially appear an innocent sharing of a mother’s pride. A form of subtle family propaganda. With the internet, surely anything is possible.

Paranoid conspiracy theories aside, this woman, evidently, isn’t the only person on Facebook who thinks "babies are brilliant!". Our news feeds are flooded with photos of our "friends'" gorgeous little sprogs. We are able to share in the social mediated flow of their offspring’s development - from seeing them fresh and wrinkly straight out of the oven and embarking on their first crawl, through to their fancy dress party debut. And so it continues. Now, even foetal scans are starting to make a regular appearance. What’s next? Front row seats to the act of conception? And how can we omit the status updates that guide us through the exploding nappies, baby pukes and debut potty poops, which the majority of us have no interest in whatsoever? Don’t get me wrong, we wish these young families well, but really, is there nothing else to talk about? I’m not a baby hater. I like them. And they like me. In the real world I’m the first to grab one for a cuddle. With parental permission, that is.

These brilliant babies, these symbolic objects - and all of their actions - are  hoisted up online, shoved in our Facebook faces, whether we like it or not. Social media news portal Mashable ranked gurgling baby pics and the associated running commentary as the most annoying Facebook update out of their 20 Things Your Annoying Friends Do On Facebook article, which has now motivated 25k shares. And this swelling irritant hasn’t gone without provoking some digital revolt. Last year New York writer and internet enthusiast Chris Baker created Webby winner Unbaby.me, a browser extension for Facebook that replaces your friends’ baby snaps with more digestible images such as puppies or slices of bacon. A digital countercultural solution to the baby photo epidemic has arrived, to unanimous media and punter applause. Since its launch the site has received surging global press coverage; 105k Facebook "likes"; 10 million website hits, and most significantly, over 3.3 million (and rapidly growing) pictures of babies have now been replaced. A nappy slapping backlash is on the rise. And last week Baker launched Unwhatever.me, to eradicate all the other annoying updates that make you want to throw your laptop out of the window. 

But why the need to post up baby pictures in the first place? There have been a number of sociological studies of Facebook users’ behavioural patterns. Some show that those with low self-esteem "feel better" with a boost to one’s self-worth, through the lens of self-affirmation theory - which does-what-it-says-on-the-academic-tin - when they project, via their status updates and Facebook profile, carefully curated snapshots of their lives. "Status" is updated not just online, but on the social hierarchical ladder. Those too-cute-to-possibly-be-true kiddie pics and blemish-free images of family life ("Look at us! We’re on a picnic and although we really want to smother our kids’ faces in coleslaw and leave them behind, we’re having the best time ever! Yay!") gives the individual validation of their life choices, thus making them feel more at ease in their offline world, nested safely within the comfy folds of societal norms.

Other studies argue that the more time spent "sharing" and exploring (cough, stalking) other people’s Facebook profiles and status updates can lead to decreased feelings of self-worth, particularly among women. So herein lies another concern. The haves and the havenots. The mums and the mumsnot. The smug hollering of updates such as "babies are brilliant!" that echo across one’s online social circle could be considered nothing short of cyber bullying towards those in the so-called "friendship" network who might be unhappily childless, or struggling to cope with parental pressures. As if Mumsnet wasn’t doing enough of that already.

Baby bragging, it thus appears, is big in the Facebook world - a world that now boasts 1.1 billion members who exhaust a minimum of 700 minutes on it per month. People are pushing their baby shaped valued objects - one’s social and symbolic capital (we can thank the media coverage of celebrity parents and their spawn for this) - by holding up their little pukey, pooey treasures to their online network for what they hope will receive a flurry of "likes" and a bubbling stream of positive comments; online fuel to the stoke those needy flames of self-affirmation.

In the digital world - so instant and accessible - we can’t help but show off. We use symbols of societal value (if not babies, then holidays, posh dinners, engagement rings, sporting updates, body shots - none of us are exempt) to assert a power over others; to seek legitimization by our peer groups.

Whatever academic theories there are available to try and make sense of all of this, this interaction with the online social world is simply yet another aspect of modern life which is becoming increasingly disturbing.

Babies become symbolic objects, and sharing photos of them is a way of projecting a version of your life. Photo: Getty

Lulu LeVay is a sociologist, feminist, writer, DJ and fitness fanatic.

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Leader: The unresolved Eurozone crisis

The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving.

The eurozone crisis was never resolved. It was merely conveniently forgotten. The vote for Brexit, the terrible war in Syria and Donald Trump’s election as US president all distracted from the single currency’s woes. Yet its contradictions endure, a permanent threat to continental European stability and the future cohesion of the European Union.

The resignation of the Italian prime minister Matteo Renzi, following defeat in a constitutional referendum on 4 December, was the moment at which some believed that Europe would be overwhelmed. Among the champions of the No campaign were the anti-euro Five Star Movement (which has led in some recent opinion polls) and the separatist Lega Nord. Opponents of the EU, such as Nigel Farage, hailed the result as a rejection of the single currency.

An Italian exit, if not unthinkable, is far from inevitable, however. The No campaign comprised not only Eurosceptics but pro-Europeans such as the former prime minister Mario Monti and members of Mr Renzi’s liberal-centrist Democratic Party. Few voters treated the referendum as a judgement on the monetary union.

To achieve withdrawal from the euro, the populist Five Star Movement would need first to form a government (no easy task under Italy’s complex multiparty system), then amend the constitution to allow a public vote on Italy’s membership of the currency. Opinion polls continue to show a majority opposed to the return of the lira.

But Europe faces far more immediate dangers. Italy’s fragile banking system has been imperilled by the referendum result and the accompanying fall in investor confidence. In the absence of state aid, the Banca Monte dei Paschi di Siena, the world’s oldest bank, could soon face ruin. Italy’s national debt stands at 132 per cent of GDP, severely limiting its firepower, and its financial sector has amassed $360bn of bad loans. The risk is of a new financial crisis that spreads across the eurozone.

EU leaders’ record to date does not encourage optimism. Seven years after the Greek crisis began, the German government is continuing to advocate the failed path of austerity. On 4 December, Germany’s finance minister, Wolfgang Schäuble, declared that Greece must choose between unpopular “structural reforms” (a euphemism for austerity) or withdrawal from the euro. He insisted that debt relief “would not help” the immiserated country.

Yet the argument that austerity is unsustainable is now heard far beyond the Syriza government. The International Monetary Fund is among those that have demanded “unconditional” debt relief. Under the current bailout terms, Greece’s interest payments on its debt (roughly €330bn) will continually rise, consuming 60 per cent of its budget by 2060. The IMF has rightly proposed an extended repayment period and a fixed interest rate of 1.5 per cent. Faced with German intransigence, it is refusing to provide further funding.

Ever since the European Central Bank president, Mario Draghi, declared in 2012 that he was prepared to do “whatever it takes” to preserve the single currency, EU member states have relied on monetary policy to contain the crisis. This complacent approach could unravel. From the euro’s inception, economists have warned of the dangers of a monetary union that is unmatched by fiscal and political union. The UK, partly for these reasons, wisely rejected membership, but other states have been condemned to stagnation. As Felix Martin writes on page 15, “Italy today is worse off than it was not just in 2007, but in 1997. National output per head has stagnated for 20 years – an astonishing . . . statistic.”

Germany’s refusal to support demand (having benefited from a fixed exchange rate) undermined the principles of European solidarity and shared prosperity. German unemployment has fallen to 4.1 per cent, the lowest level since 1981, but joblessness is at 23.4 per cent in Greece, 19 per cent in Spain and 11.6 per cent in Italy. The youngest have suffered most. Youth unemployment is 46.5 per cent in Greece, 42.6 per cent in Spain and 36.4 per cent in Italy. No social model should tolerate such waste.

“If the euro fails, then Europe fails,” the German chancellor, Angela Merkel, has often asserted. Yet it does not follow that Europe will succeed if the euro survives. The continent that once aspired to be a rival superpower to the US is now a byword for decline, and ethnic nationalism and right-wing populism are thriving. In these circumstances, the surprise has been not voters’ intemperance, but their patience.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brexit to Trump