"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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Former Irish premier John Bruton on Brexit: "Britain should pay for our border checks"

The former Taoiseach says Brexit has been interpreted as "a profoundly unfriendly act"

At Kapıkule, on the Turkish border with Bulgaria, the queue of lorries awaiting clearance to enter European Union territory can extend as long as 17km. Despite Turkey’s customs union for goods with the bloc, hauliers can spend up to 30 hours clearing a series of demanding administrative hoops. This is the nightmare keeping former Irish premier John Bruton up at night. Only this time, it's the post-Brexit border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and it's much, much worse.   

Bruton (pictured below), Taoiseach between 1994 and 1997, is an ardent pro-European and was historically so sympathetic to Britain that, while in office, he was pilloried as "John Unionist" by his rivals. But he believes, should she continue her push for a hard Brexit, that Theresa May's promise for a “seamless, frictionless border” is unattainable. 

"A good example of the sort of thing that might arise is what’s happening on the Turkish-Bulgarian border," the former leader of Ireland's centre-right Fine Gael party told me. “The situation would be more severe in Ireland, because the UK proposes to leave the customs union as well."

The outlook for Ireland looks grim – and a world away from the dynamism of the Celtic Tiger days Bruton’s coalition government helped usher in. “There will be all sorts of problems," he said. "Separate permits for truck drivers operating across two jurisdictions, people having to pay for the right to use foreign roads, and a whole range of other issues.” 

Last week, an anti-Brexit protest on the border in Killeen, County Louth, saw mock customs checks bring traffic to a near standstill. But, so far, the discussion around what the future looks like for the 260 border crossings has focused predominantly on its potential effects on Ulster’s fragile peace. Last week Bruton’s successor as Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, warned “any sort of physical border” would be “bad for the peace process”. 

Bruton does not disagree, and is concerned by what the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights might mean for the Good Friday Agreement. But he believes the preoccupation with the legacy of violence has distracted British policymakers from the potentially devastating economic impact of Brexit. “I don’t believe that any serious thought was given to the wider impact on the economy of the two islands as a whole," he said. 

The collapse in the pound has already hit Irish exporters, for whom British sales are worth £15bn. Businesses that work across the border could yet face the crippling expense of duplicating their operations after the UK leaves the customs union and single market. This, he says, will “radically disturb” Ireland’s agriculture and food-processing industries – 55 per cent of whose products are sold to the UK. A transitional deal will "anaesthetise" people to the real impact, he says, but when it comes, it will be a more seismic change than many in London are expecting. He even believes it would be “logical” for the UK to cover the Irish government’s costs as it builds new infrastructure and employs new customs officials to deal with the new reality.

Despite his past support for Britain, the government's push for a hard Brexit has clearly tested Bruton's patience. “We’re attempting to unravel more than 40 years of joint work, joint rule-making, to create the largest multinational market in the world," he said. It is not just Bruton who is frustrated. The British decision to "tear that up", he said, "is regarded, particularly by people in Ireland, as a profoundly unfriendly act towards neighbours".

Nor does he think Leave campaigners, among them the former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers, gave due attention to the issue during the campaign. “The assurances that were given were of the nature of: ‘Well, it’ll be alright on the night!’," he said. "As if the Brexit advocates were in a position to give any assurances on that point.” 

Indeed, some of the more blimpish elements of the British right believe Ireland, wedded to its low corporate tax rates and east-west trade, would sooner follow its neighbour out of the EU than endure the disruption. Recent polling shows they are likely mistaken: some 80 per cent of Irish voters say they would vote to remain in an EU referendum.

Irexit remains a fringe cause and Bruton believes, post-Brexit, Dublin will have no choice but to align itself more closely with the EU27. “The UK is walking away,” he said. “This shift has been imposed upon us by our neighbour. Ireland will have to do the best it can: any EU without Britain is a more difficult EU for Ireland.” 

May, he says, has exacerbated those difficulties. Her appointment of her ally James Brokenshire as secretary of state for Northern Ireland was interpreted as a sign she understood the role’s strategic importance. But Bruton doubts Ireland has figured much in her biggest decisions on Brexit: “I don’t think serious thought was given to this before her conference speech, which insisted on immigration controls and on no jurisdiction for the European Court of Justice. Those two decisions essentially removed the possibility for Ireland and Britain to work together as part of the EEA or customs union – and were not even necessitated by the referendum decision.”

There are several avenues for Britain if it wants to avert the “voluntary injury” it looks set to inflict to Ireland’s economy and its own. One, which Bruton concedes is unlikely, is staying in the single market. He dismisses as “fanciful” the suggestions that Northern Ireland alone could negotiate European Economic Area membership, while a poll on Irish reunification is "only marginally" more likely. 

The other is a variation on the Remoaners’ favourite - a second referendum should Britain look set to crash out on World Trade Organisation terms without a satisfactory deal. “I don’t think a second referendum is going to be accepted by anybody at this stage. It is going to take a number of years,” he said. “I would like to see the negotiation proceed and for the European Union to keep the option of UK membership on 2015 terms on the table. It would be the best available alternative to an agreed outcome.” 

As things stand, however, Bruton is unambiguous. Brexit means the Northern Irish border will change for the worse. “That’s just inherent in the decision the UK electorate was invited to take, and took – or rather, the UK government took in interpreting the referendum.”