Arts

If I Embarrass My Baby on TikTok, Will He Stay My Baby Forever?

The other day I was looking at my baby, and I had a little thought: Should I toss a slice of cheese on him? I had watched some videos on my phone of what appeared to be Kraft Singles smacking the faces of crying infants, rendering them stunned and bewildered. The videos had been spliced into a mash-up and served to me on Instagram as a looping carousel of orange squares thwacking babies silly. My baby was not crying, but that would give me time to prepare: Open the fridge, unwrap the slice, position the camera and take aim.

The phenomenon of the “cheese slice trick” (or the “baby cheese challenge”) is mildly rude, but it isn’t new. I first saw the videos circulating several years ago. I sensed that they had returned to my feed because I had viewed a different social media trend involving kids, a pantry staple and the element of surprise: the “egg crack challenge,” a recent viral prank in which parents film selfie videos of themselves cooking with their young children, only to — surprise! — forcefully crack eggs on their heads and capture the emotional fallout.

The trend began with people egging the foreheads of unsuspecting adults. Then they started targeting littler heads and producing bigger reactions. Many of the children cried, and for some reason, that made the parents laugh. The footage was unsettling, which only helped to extend its reach. Internet child care experts joined the food fight with their own videos expressing disapproval. When the cheese clips resurfaced, it felt like the algorithm was mounting a rebuttal. Like: See? It’s totally fine to hit your kids with food and post it online! The cheese actually makes them stop crying.

Egg or cheese, baby or toddler, tears or silence — humiliation thrums through all of these scenes. Why would parents want to publicly debase their own children? Social media clout is one explanation, but I don’t think it’s the only one. Watching an egg-cracking compilation on TikTok, I noticed something: As a mother films herself with her young daughter, the mother’s eyes rove restlessly between the child (whom she has just egged) and the phone (which is mirroring the scene back to her). She tries to offer assurances — “it’s OK, you’re OK” — even as she is drawn back to the screen, cackling at the spectacle of her child turning pink with anger.

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.

I did not cheese my baby, as he is a dignified individual. And I didn’t crack an egg on my toddler’s forehead, either, because, as one young TikTok target explained to her caretakers, “Hey, that wasn’t very nice.” But I do photograph and film my children obsessively. I do this because, even though I know that they are becoming their own people, I want to keep a trace of them for myself.

D.W. Winnicott wrote about the transitional object, a little stuffed animal or swatch of blanket that a baby uses to soothe itself as it begins to separate from its caregivers. Parents have transitional objects, too: our phones, which we use to ease our own separation anxiety. Sometimes my toddler laughs when he is nervous or overwhelmed, and I wonder if those feelings drive the parents’ laughter, too. Our babies won’t always be babies. Our children are growing up. They are growing away from us. And if we pelt them with eggs, they may not come back to visit.

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