That is the eeriest part of these videos — the parents are barely interacting with their kids. Instead they are relating to a mirror image of their children that they are spreading online. And they are reveling in their power over that image.
Children in crisis have been an onscreen fascination since the beginning of screens. In the Lumière brothers’ 1896 silent short “Querelle Enfantine,” two fancy babies in lace bonnets grapple over a silver spoon from adjacent high chairs, slapping and wailing and then consoling one another as the filmmakers, presumably, look on. More recently, similarly embarrassing footage has been mailed into “America’s Funniest Home Videos,” forwarded in chain emails and uploaded to YouTube.
But TikTok and its Instagram competitor, Reels, have made such content ubiquitous. You need not be a filmmaker or even a dedicated family vlogger to casually offer your offspring to the viral gods. The apps are always coursing with some new prompt beckoning parents to show off their big babies, their ugly babies, their ugly babies’ glow-ups. It feels so easy: You’ve got your phone, you’ve got your kid, and because of the kid, you’ve got nothing else to do except look at your phone. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the egg crack challenge took off at the end of August, in the desperate final days of summer break.
It’s seductive for new parents to think of our children as an extensions of ourselves, and social media makes that fantasy visceral. Profiles that once featured pictures of our own faces now center snapshots of our children. Babies are cute (even the ones their parents advertise as ugly), and their emotions are sweeping and operatic. Plus, as we grow older and less algorithmically favored, our children teem with beauty and verve. When they are babies, objectifying them feels straightforward: We wheel them around, we dress them and feed them, we choreograph their lives. Babies at least seem within our control. Toddlers, famously, do not.
If the cheese slice trick imagines the baby as a kind of benign Mr. Potato Head figure, the egg crack challenge views the toddler as a Whac-a-Mole, a wily adversary that needs to be thumped into submission. Both trends imagine that the child itself functions like a gadget, with a “docile switch” or a “grumpy switch” that can be toggled for our own comfort or amusement. Inside the phone, a child can be coached, filmed, reshot, spliced and filtered. A child can be saved, or it can be deleted.