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  • Writer's pictureShana Watkins

How family photos help kids (and all of us) cope

Updated: Jul 20, 2020

As a photographer, my home has no shortage of photos. So, when my kids inevitably started searching our house for things to entertain them a few weeks into the coronavirus stay-at-home order, photos were an easy place to start. As I watched my children set aside their smartphones to enthusiastically dive into our family’s photo albums in a way I’ve never seen them scroll through a social feed, I couldn’t help but wonder: What exactly is it that makes physical photos so different from their digital counterparts? Why now, when our lives are becoming more virtual than ever, are my kids pulled back to these physical keepsakes?

As it turns out, research shows that all of our super-convenient phone photography can actually be detrimental to memory-keeping, and that physical prints are vital to our sense of belonging and connection. In looking to cure their boredom, it seems, my kids found something much more meaningful.

Before we all had smartphones, taking photos was a much more deliberate process. Physical prints were the sparks that prompted our memory recall as we sorted them into albums to enjoy and re-enjoy. In 2020, humanity is expected to take over 1.4 trillion photos thanks to the freedom we now have to take a pic (or 10) of anything that catches our eye.

Unfortunately, this freedom also means we’re not making memories as well as we once did. Research has revealed a “photo-taking impairment effect,” which causes us to remember fewer details about the things we photograph. Without memory-making, storage limits or set-up time to worry about, we tend to take a “snap now, maybe circle back to later?” approach.

Believe me, I get it. I’m mom to four kids, ages 5 to 20. Between running my business and keeping up with them, even I’m tempted to rely on my phone to capture every memory we make. After all, those pics will always be in my pocket, in the cloud or on my favorite social feed, right?

Sadly, I’ve heard my fair share of horror stories from clients who’ve lost treasured photos to everything from busted hard drives to shuttered social media platforms. When we rely solely on technology to safeguard our photos, there’s always risk involved. Plus, we tend to get anxious when we can’t organize or look at our digital photos in a fulfilling way.

The result? A feed full of stored photos we take but never look at. Looking back at our photos has been shown to reduce stress, enhance mood and improve overall well-being. When we never get around to it, we’re missing out on half the benefit (and fun) of photography.

So clearly, the answer is not to stop taking photos of your family. In fact, experts say that family portraits help children connect with “who they are and where they fit” in the world — something our kids are likely looking for right now.

So, yes, we still need plenty of pics of our families — but there’s an important part we tend to leave out in a world full of smartphones.

Psychologists say that having physical photos and photo albums in our homes has positive effects on self-esteem, especially for our kids. When they see us proudly displaying our family photos, it solidifies our kids’ sense of belonging.

Dr. David Krauss, licensed psychologist and author of “Photo Therapy and Mental Health,” says that “placing a family photo someplace in the home where the child can see it every day without having to turn on a device or click around on a computer to find it really hits home this sense of reassurance and comfort.”

As the world outside has felt flipped on its head, first because of the pandemic and now because of the civil unrest following the death of George Floyd, having comforting physical reminders of our place with one another and in the world at large has helped my kids — and my whole family — cope.

Plus, our physical photos just do something that digital images can’t. They let us “touch” the past, invoking a sensory experience that stimulates our memory. I’ve seen it, not just with my own kids, but also with my clients, as their kids are inspired to touch, kiss and hug prints of their families when they hold them in their hands or see them framed on the wall.

Even as a photographer myself, I’ve been surprised at just how much it has meant to my kids to reconnect with the world through physical photos during this time. As your family rides out the rest of their time in isolation, here are a few ways that your photos can help you cope:

  • Go through your old photos with your kids: Even if your only physical photos are from before your kids were born, letting them see (and touch) the physical reminders of your past help them feel connected to your family’s history.

  • Have your digital photos printed: Finally go through that photo feed and pick some of your favorites to have put into a family photo album. Pick the best photos, plan the album and have them printed and put into a display-worthy keepsake.

  • Make plans for future photos: Having our phone cameras at our fingertips is great for capturing everyday moments we’d otherwise miss, but the big stuff deserves a more deliberate approach. Consider scheduling a family shoot with a professional photographer for later in the year — you’ll be surprised how much more of the experience you remember when you let someone else take your photos.

In this strange time of self-isolation, feeling disconnected is, ironically, becoming a thing we all share. As your family looks for ways to cope in a world that’s increasingly looking to future-facing technology to stay connected, remember that it may actually be something from the past that can reignite their sense of belonging.

For my family, what began as an impulsive trip through a single photo album has ultimately become a powerful source of emotional-connectedness and serenity — two things that are more important now than ever.

Shana Watkins is a professional photographer in St. Louis.

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