Do memes make people lazy and fat?

Memes are supposed to make billions of social media users laugh and smile. They usually consist of funny pictures, short videos, and other content accompanied by a brief text, often taken out of their original context to gain a new, viral meaning.
However, researchers from the British Loughborough University have now cast a shadow over the laughter. They have found that memes, particularly those portraying unhealthy eating habits or overweight and obese individuals, pose a certain risk to teenagers and their health.

Unhealthy and inappropriate behavior becomes normalized

Memes are blind to the age or maturity of their audience. Consequently, teenagers are exposed to numerous memes that are not suitable for their age. According to the researchers, this includes memes that promote an unhealthy lifestyle, poor diet, lack of exercise, laziness, obesity, and overweight, albeit often in a humorous way. However, not all teenagers perceive this irony.

As a result, the acceptance of unhealthy and harmful behaviors increases solely due to the abundance of such memes, which have become a regular part of the daily lives of young people through social media platforms and messaging apps. The more often these memes are seen and shared without critique or reflection, the greater the risk that an unhealthy lifestyle will be perceived as normal in the end.

Laughter as the most common reaction to memes

The researchers based their study on the social media platform Twitter. They searched for specific hashtags and with the help of a semantic language model were able to determine which emotions the reactions of teenage users contained. One of the alarming results is that regardless of the message or images conveyed by the memes, teenagers most commonly reacted with laughter.

This lack of critical distance becomes problematic when viral images, videos, and texts, due to their sheer volume over time, lead to either the normalization of laughing at and mocking overweight and obese people, or to overweight, obesity, lack of exercise, and generally unhealthy behaviors becoming a normal part of a teenagers’ worldview and society.

How dangerous are memes really?

What the researchers essentially want to understand is how memes function as cultural artifacts and often as patterns of identification for teenagers. Do they indeed lead to a normalization of unhealthy behaviors? To further acceptance of mocking overweight or obese individuals, as well as health-conscious people, and to the rejection of anyone who does not conform to the “norm”? How do memes shape the worldview and society of teenagers?

Do they even exacerbate existing prejudices, preconceptions, and resentments against people who are perceived as different? After all, memes inherently have a manipulative tendency due to their composition from various parts, which are then combined to create an entirely new and arbitrary context.

Researchers can only provide indicative results, which could suggest a role of memes in promoting unhealthy lifestyles, intolerance, and the reinforcement of prejudices. This is particularly sensitive as, according to the World Health Organization, about a third of children in the UK are obese, while in other European countries, it is less than a fifth.

To better understand memes and their role, especially regarding the health and nutrition of teenagers, further studies are planned. These studies will not only investigate Twitter but also Instagram and Pinterest for relevant memes and the emotions of teenagers associated with them.

Facebook’s Rosetta aims to identify “harmful” memes

Facebook has already taken a step towards identifying memes that violate the policies of Facebook and Instagram with its Artificial Intelligence named Rosetta. However, even such programs are unlikely to flag images depicting, for example, a body made out of pizza, hamburgers, and sausages or the image of Lu Hao (unfortunately mainly known as the “Fat Asian Kid”) as objectionable at first glance, even through the sharp lens of Artificial Intelligence (Source: Knowyourmeme).

Therefore, a societal discussion needs to be initiated on how harmless or harmful memes actually are and how to deal with them on social media in the future. Sweden has already set a more or less strong example in this regard. Their advertising watchdog, “Reklamombudsmannen,” condemned the use of the “Distracted Boyfriend” meme by a company as sexist for both men and women (Source: Knowyourmeme / Antonio Guillem).

Zudem könnte es den Memes auf Facebook, Twitter und Co. auch von anderer Seite bald „an den Kragen gehen“. Mit der Billigung der Reform des Urheberrechts seitens des EU-Parlaments könnte es künftig auch zum Einsatz von Uploadfiltern in den Social Media kommen, mit denen sich die Plattformen ihrerseits gegen Urheberrechtsverstöße seitens ihrer User schützen und entsprechenden Content bereits beim Hochladen identifizieren könnte. Und diesen Filtern würden am Ende sicher auch viele mit einem Copyright versehene Memes zum Opfer fallen. Doch Widerstand hat sich bereits formiert, in der Form der Initiative Save the Meme. Die nämlich will verhindern, dass durch die Verpflichtung der Internetanbieter zum Filtern aller Uploads auch legal genutzte Inhalte mit Copyright – und damit eben auch Memes – „automatisiert zensiert“ und pauschal gelöscht werden. Wir sind gespannt, wie und in welchem Habitat der Fortbestand der Memes gesichert wird.

Furthermore, memes on Facebook, Twitter, and Co. might soon face scrutiny from another angle. With the approval of the reform of copyright law by the EU Parliament, upload filters could be introduced on social media platforms in the future. These filters would allow platforms to protect themselves against copyright infringements by identifying potentially infringing content upon upload. However, these filters would likely also target many copyrighted memes. Resistance has already formed in terms of the Save the Meme initiative, which aims to prevent the “automated censorship” and blanket deletion of legally used copyrighted content, including memes. We are curious to see how and in what form the survival of memes will be secured.