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26 June 2019updated 01 Jul 2021 12:14pm

Kids as young as five are snapping pictures of their parents for Instagram, but should we be worried?

By Amelia Tait

As a general rule, children are not allowed to stand on their parents’ beds. But for eight-year-old Elsie, this is the best thing about being her mother Alice’s unofficial Instagram photographer. Alice Judge-Talbot is a 33-year-old blogger and influencer from Buckinghamshire with nearly 22,000 followers on Instagram. Her daughter Elsie takes the majority of her pictures for the app. “Sometimes I have to stand in funny places, I quite enjoy it,” Elsie explains. “To take a photo of her I had to stand on her bed and she was lying on her bed… It’s fun to do.”

While relaxing in a beachside café on holiday, I noticed an unusual sight. Out on the sand, a woman was posing in a bikini, the ocean waves lapping behind her and the sun bouncing off her long black hair. So far, so routine – but the person taking her picture wasn’t a partner or a friend, but instead a young boy who seemed to be her son.

In 2015, a video by comedy group the Mystery Hour went viral, popularising the concept of the “Instagram husband”. An Instagram husband is a boyfriend or partner who dutifully takes shot after shot of their girlfriend for social media. “Behind every cute girl on Instagram is a guy like me,” an actor in the spoof video said, another adding: “I’m basically a human selfie stick.”

Instagram husbands are now routinely mocked online, with an entire Tumblr blog dedicated to marvelling at the strange positions men contort themselves into to get the perfect shot. Yet there is another phenomenon that no one is yet talking about: Instagram offspring.

“It’s just necessity, really, it takes forever to set up a tripod and do a self-timer and all that stuff,” Judge-Talbot told me. “In an ideal world, I’d find a boyfriend who was a photographer.” Elsie has taken her mother’s picture since she was five years old and Judge-Talbot says she’s “really, really good”.

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While “kidfluencers” – youngsters famous for being in front of the camera – are nothing new, it seems that an increasing number of children are behind the lens, taking the perfect photo of mum and dad. On Instagram, the hashtags #MySonTookThisPic, #MyDaughterTookThisPic, #MySonTookThis, and #MyDaughterTookThis have been used over 3,100 times.

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Of course, these hashtags can encompass offspring aged from four to 40, and not all the pictures labelled this way are of people (some are of scenery). But on the whole the hashtags reveal plenty of posed photos of young-looking mums and dads. Most match the aesthetic Instagrammers become famous for – bright colours, seemingly candid poses and beautiful backdrops.

In a picture from February, 34-year-old Stephanie Cruz leans against a tree in a stylish black top, leggings and trainers. She poses off centre – an old Instagram trick – and smiles at the camera, with some greenery and a pretty arched window behind her. The photo was taken by her eight-year-old son, Milo, who has taken photos of his mum for more than half a year.

“The first time he did great and ever since then, if he knows I’ve got something I need to take photos of for a promo, he asks if he can help,” says Cruz, who lives in Texas and considers herself a “micro-influencer”. Though she has fewer than 2,000 followers, brands provide her with free products to review, and she receives a small fee to post photos of items on Instagram.

Cruz says Milo is better than “most adults” at taking pictures of her, though she often needs to remind him not to crop off her shoes. “He likes to get creative with angles,” she says. “He does a great job and has fun doing it and seeing how they come out. It’s also something for just the two of us to do together.”

Everyone loves a moral panic about social media. In June, influencers were criticised across the international press for taking inappropriately seductive photos at the site of the Chernobyl nuclear disaster. Everything wasn’t as it seemed – an investigation by Ruchira Sharma of the i newspaper found that the photos that caused the uproar weren’t actually taken at the site. It is easy to see how “Instagram offspring” could be painted as an unforeseen iPad-wielding fifth horseman of the apocalypse, but the reality, as always, is more mundane.

“If Milo ever decides he doesn’t want to take pictures, I’ll set up a tripod,” says Stephanie Cruz. “My son isn’t going to remember me ‘forcing’ him to take photos of me. He’s going to remember going outside while mum felt confident wearing something pretty.”

There are many positive things Instagram offspring can learn on the job, not least how to take a good photo (Cruz has taught her son the importance of lighting and shadows). It’s possible that children can also learn negative lessons – that life should be curated for social media, or that vanity is a desirable trait.

Alice Judge-Talbot says she uses the photography sessions to teach Elsie about social media. “We always talk about how ‘likes’ don’t define you and how it’s about sharing and having fun with it,” she explains. “Unless I wrap her up in a bubble and send her to live in a forest, I can’t protect her from social media. And I’d rather her go into social media knowing exactly how it operates.”

I wish I’d been allowed to take more photos of my mum as a child. She often hid behind her hands or the lens, and isn’t front and centre in enough family photographs. It’s predictable that many commenters will find it despicable that children take posed photos of their mothers for social media, but if the child is happy, it’s hard to see what the problem is. Do you know what happens in childbirth? If I wrote down a play-by-play, it would be deleted for being too vulgar. Mums give life – the least children can give in return is an Instagram photo with 100 likes.

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This article appears in the 26 Jun 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Restraining order