One does not simply share memes: Researchers sound alarm over habits they can normalize

One does not simply share memes: Researchers sound alarm over habits they can normalize
The word meme, from the 11th edition of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, is shown in this photograph, in New York, Wednesday, Dec. 5, 2012. (AP Photo/Richard Drew) (Richard Drew)

(RNN) – Has your child made a habit out of putting large, blocky white text on photos and posting them to social media?

How about a picture of a guy with his girlfriend, looking back at another girl? Or brains lighting up with increasing vibrancy?

If your child has done these things, they are, like a very large swath of internet, fluent in memes.

They are also, according to British researchers, at great risk for a number of detrimental health and behavioral traits.

In a letter to Parliament, a team of researchers at Loughborough University in the UK paint a concerning picture about the effects of high exposure to, or contribution of, memes online.

“Such is the pervasiveness of Internet memes that the vast majority of sharers display little, if any, emotion when sharing these memes: many of which contain inappropriate material or ridicule others by race, gender, ethnicity, sexuality, body shape, religion, diet, etc.,” the research team writes. “When viewed in this way, Internet memes have the potential to normalize undesirable behaviors such as trolling, body shaming and bullying, and a lack of emotion may be indicative of a larger apathy with regards to such practice.”

They stressed, in particular, the spread of memes that make light of serious health subjects such as smoking, potentially removing some of the stigma associated with unhealthy habits.

They note that nearly a third of children in England are overweight or obese, and write “it is necessary to better understand what health knowledge and health messages young teenagers access/acquire on social media and how they respond.”

The researchers are looking for funding into a project that would more fully gauge these risks, which they call “MEMEotive.”

“Internet memes are generally viewed as entertaining but they also represent a body of cultural practice that does not account for the specific needs and rights of teenagers,” they write. “If Internet memes carry political, corporate or other agendas without priorities tailored to the needs of 13-16-year-olds then they have the potential to do harm on a large scale.”

The researchers are seeking to better understand the kinds of health information teens are sharing online via memes. Preliminary research, they write, “revealed concerns about the perceived lack of emotion associated with the sharing of memes on Twitter.”

“In ridiculing body shape ,diet and fitness there is a worry that we are also normalizing obesity, poor diet and sedentary behavior,” their letter states.

They conclude that “this kind of social media content has largely gone unnoticed, and its effects, impact, prevalence and virality are, at best, poorly understood.”

“It is hence important to investigate this area and seek to impact on social policy initiatives … as the potential impact of Internet meme appears to be harmful and yet this harm is hidden in image and text,” the researchers write.

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