It has long been assumed that childhood is a time of innocence, free from the shackles of social conformity, where youngsters act naturally on instinct rather than by convention.
But new research shows that even by the age of two years old children are already crippled by the scrutiny of others and will change their behaviour if they are being watched to boost their reputation.
Scientists at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, found that by 24 months toddlers show signs of inhibition and embarrassment when being observed and will attempt to ‘manage their image.’
The study published in the journal Development Psychology concludes that social anxiety emerges in humans far earlier than previously thought.
“There is something specifically human in the way that we’re sensitive to the gaze of others,” said Philippe Rochat, Professor of Psychology at Emory, specialising in childhood development and is senior author of the study.
“At the very bottom, our concern for image management and reputation is about the fear of rejection, one of the main engines of the human psyche.
“This is an important milestone in our understanding of human social cognition and development.”
The rise of social media has made it clearer than even how concerned adults are about their image.
People report feeling crushed if a post on Twitter, Facebook or Instagram does not receive sufficient ‘likes’ while psychologists have recently coined the condition ‘Snapchat Dysmorphia’ in which users become so obsessed with enhanced digital versions of themselves that they become depressed by reality.
To test how early social anxiety emerges, scientists carried out several experiments involving 144 children between the ages of 14 and 24 months using a remote control robot.
A researcher showed the child how to operate the robot using buttons on a remote control and then either watched the youngster playing with it, or turned away and pretended to read a magazine.
When the child was being watched, they showed more inhibition and embarrassment than when the researcher was not watching.
In a second experiment the researcher used two different remotes when demonstrating the toy, saying, “Wow! Isn’t that great?” with the first and “Uh-oh! Oops, oh no!” with the second.
They found that children used the remote associated with the negative response more when not being watched, choosing the positive response remote when under the gaze of the researcher.
In a final experiment, youngsters were shown the toy being operated by two different researchers, one who gave a positive response, ‘Yay! The toy moved!’ and one who frowned and said ‘Yuck! The toy moved!’.
When the child was invited to play they were much more likely to press the remote when the researcher who gave a positive response was watching.
“We’ve shown that by the age of 24 months, children are not only aware that other people may be evaluating them, but that they will alter their behavior to seek a positive response,” said doctoral student Sara Valencia Botto, first author of the study.
“This behavior is like older children who behave well and do good things while others are watching and misbehave when no one is paying attention.
“Our concern for reputation is something that defines us as human. We spend resources on make-up and designer brands, are terrified to talk in front of an audience and conform to many of society’s standards because we are concerned with how others will evaluate us.”
Previous research has found the same behavior is evidence by the time a child reaches around four years old, but the new study suggests it emerges far earlier and the team is now planning to carry out similar tests on 12 month old babies.