memes are bad for our health, apparently

This is the worst news we’ve heard all year.

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Oct 22 2018, 1:13pm

We might consider them the only good, pure thing left in the dumpster fire post-digital world we live in, but bad news guys: memes are actually bad for our health, according to a new study.

Rather than encouraging inclusivity and a lighthearted view of diet and body-positivity, researchers at Loughborough University have warned that memes are actually fuelling an obesity crisis and apathy when it comes to healthy eating. In an appeal to the UK government, the academics behind the new study, entitled Analysing The Effects of Internet Memes on Young Teenagers’ Health and Health Behaviours, said that by making light of unhealthy eating, memes are contributing to a teenage obesity problem in British teenagers. “Internet memes have the potential to normalise undesirable behaviours such as trolling, body shaming and bullying, and a lack of emotion may be indicative of a larger apathy with regards to such practice,” the study writes.

The study cited a picture of an overweight child with the caption “free food? Count me in!” as an example of their allegedly harmful memes, as well as a meme that depicting a human body made out of pizzas and hamburgers, with sausages for limbs and a potato smiley for a face. The picture was captioned “me”. While that might sound funny -- honestly, who among us wouldn’t look at a pizza-sausage-potato-smiley-face humanoid body meme and sigh “same” -- the researchers said that these memes are more than just funny pictures created for RTs. Instead they argue that those same memes are at least partially responsible for poor health among teenagers in the UK, where nearly a third of English children are overweight or obese.

Speaking to The Telegraph, lead researcher Dr Ash Casey explained: “Basically it’s unacceptable for you and I to have a conversation saying I just ate a whole chocolate cake. But if someone puts up a meme about it then I can say ‘that’s normal and that’s okay, and that’s how I feel and that’s almost how I behave’. 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.”

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A growing health crisis among Britain’s young people is obviously concerning, but it’s debatable just how helpful reports like these are. While Dr Casey and the other researchers behind this report identify the drawbacks of memes that supposedly foster unhealthy eating and body apathy, the research also betrays a lack of nuance when it comes to understanding modern internet culture. None of the Loughborough academics, for example, delve with any detail to the reasonings behind sharing internet memes and viral videos with captions like “me” and “same”. They take as a given that the sharing of an ‘unhealthy’ meme is some sort of literal endorsement for that lifestyle, or a sinister teenage didacticism, a call to action for carb-loading. The reality is often very different.

What Casey et al.’s research also ignores is the subtext behind meme sharing, particularly when it comes to talking about unhealthy behaviours. Sharing a so called ‘unhealthy meme’ with a caption “me” or “same” is often self-deprecating, rather than a straight up flex. The underlying message of those memes is always that the “me” is a deviation from an ideal. The research also completely ignores the fact that there are almost as many ‘healthy’ as unhealthy memes on the internet. For each sentient pizza body shared on Twitter there are just as many ‘self-care’ memes, which satirize drinking water, doing face-masks, ignoring social interactions you don’t want to partake in and going for cleansing runs just as much as eating an entire chocolate cake. Most people know they should be healthier, but memes are an outlet for them to laugh about failing that ideal, rather than using the internet as just another space for teenagers to feel bad about their bodies and diets.

It seems especially brazen to blame memes for a spiralling health crisis in the UK when the government have repeatedly failed to legislate on new regulations which could actively make us all healthier. The UK have failed to impose a tax on confectionary, and although the government have finally voted to introduce a sugar tax to penalise unhealthy fizzy drinks, it's already been roundly attacked by Tory MPs being another example of a "nanny state". While recently strides have been taken to improve public health policy -- such as the ban on the sale of energy drinks to children -- it makes more sense to put an emphasis on education and public policy, not the internet, when it comes to placing blame for the healthiness of the nation.

Should we all be eating healthier? Well yeah, obviously. But rather than policing internet culture and attacking memes people share to feel better about their deviation from the healthy ideal, maybe researchers could instead focus their energies in new ways to encourage young people to embrace that healthy ideal. Just a thought.