"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.

Photo: Getty
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The rise of the green mayor – Sadiq Khan and the politics of clean energy

At an event at Tate Modern, Sadiq Khan pledged to clean up London's act.

On Thursday night, deep in the bowls of Tate Modern’s turbine hall, London Mayor Sadiq Khan renewed his promise to make the capital a world leader in clean energy and air. Yet his focus was as much on people as power plants – in particular, the need for local authorities to lead where central governments will not.

Khan was there to introduce the screening of a new documentary, From the Ashes, about the demise of the American coal industry. As he noted, Britain continues to battle against the legacy of fossil fuels: “In London today we burn very little coal but we are facing new air pollution challenges brought about for different reasons." 

At a time when the world's leaders are struggling to keep international agreements on climate change afloat, what can mayors do? Khan has pledged to buy only hybrid and zero-emissions buses from next year, and is working towards London becoming a zero carbon city.

Khan has, of course, also gained heroic status for being a bête noire of climate-change-denier-in-chief Donald Trump. On the US president's withdrawal from the Paris Agreement, Khan quipped: “If only he had withdrawn from Twitter.” He had more favourable things to say about the former mayor of New York and climate change activist Michael Bloomberg, who Khan said hailed from “the second greatest city in the world.”

Yet behind his humour was a serious point. Local authorities are having to pick up where both countries' central governments are leaving a void – in improving our air and supporting renewable technology and jobs. Most concerning of all, perhaps, is the way that interest groups representing business are slashing away at the regulations which protect public health, and claiming it as a virtue.

In the UK, documents leaked to Greenpeace’s energy desk show that a government-backed initiative considered proposals for reducing EU rules on fire-safety on the very day of the Grenfell Tower fire. The director of this Red Tape Initiative, Nick Tyrone, told the Guardian that these proposals were rejected. Yet government attempts to water down other EU regulations, such as the energy efficiency directive, still stand.

In America, this blame-game is even more highly charged. Republicans have sworn to replace what they describe as Obama’s “war on coal” with a war on regulation. “I am taking historic steps to lift the restrictions on American energy, to reverse government intrusion, and to cancel job-killing regulations,” Trump announced in March. While he has vowed “to promote clean air and clear water,” he has almost simultaneously signed an order to unravel the Clean Water Rule.

This rhetoric is hurting the very people it claims to protect: miners. From the Ashes shows the many ways that the industry harms wider public health, from water contamination, to air pollution. It also makes a strong case that the American coal industry is in terminal decline, regardless of possibile interventions from government or carbon capture.

Charities like Bloomberg can only do so much to pick up the pieces. The foundation, which helped fund the film, now not only helps support job training programs in coal communities after the Trump administration pulled their funding, but in recent weeks it also promised $15m to UN efforts to tackle climate change – again to help cover Trump's withdrawal from Paris Agreement. “I'm a bit worried about how many cards we're going to have to keep adding to the end of the film”, joked Antha Williams, a Bloomberg representative at the screening, with gallows humour.

Hope also lies with local governments and mayors. The publication of the mayor’s own environment strategy is coming “soon”. Speaking in panel discussion after the film, his deputy mayor for environment and energy, Shirley Rodrigues, described the move to a cleaner future as "an inevitable transition".

Confronting the troubled legacies of our fossil fuel past will not be easy. "We have our own experiences here of our coal mining communities being devastated by the closure of their mines," said Khan. But clean air begins with clean politics; maintaining old ways at the price of health is not one any government must pay. 

'From The Ashes' will premiere on National Geograhpic in the United Kingdom at 9pm on Tuesday, June 27th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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