Internet Memes Are Making UK Children Fat, Say Researchers Who Don't Understand Memes

from the my-Imgur-account-gave-me-the-diabetes dept

Literally anything can be the basis of a moral panic. The internet's mere existence has prompted all sorts of panickers (professional and lay) to blame any number of things/concepts for destroying the youth of the world. If it's not teens getting high by huffing MP3s with their eyeballs and ears, it's Minecraft creating unrealistic home-building expectations or IoT devices creating a generation of automaton abusers.

For those that buy into this thinking, it seems plausible because it's happening in the present. With technology being indiscernible from magic, the academics behind these questionable assertions are no more than shamans guiding the faithful towards conclusions that cohere with their prejudices. If they didn't have X growing up, chances are X is what's ruining their kids. A little history would go a long way. I mean, at one point in time, chess -- the game of kings and gifted elementary school students -- was considered to be the Grand Theft Auto of its day, capable of turning players into cold-blooded killers.

Some UK "researchers," who have earned every bit of derision contained in those scare quotes, are claiming internet memes are ruining children. While they may have somewhat of a point about bullying and shaming, they lose it completely by claiming memes play a role in the UK's childhood obesity stats. (via PetaPixel)

Here's the part of the "written evidence" [PDF] that makes a little bit of sense:

Our provisional inquiries show that a substantial number of individuals on Twitter share health related Internet memes, with both positive and negative messages, through their public accounts. 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. When viewed in this way, 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.

Yes, the internet can be an awful place filled with awful people. So can real life. Internet decorum isn't on par with IRL decorum, but that doesn't mean the "emotionless" sharing of memes is indicative of widespread sociopathy. Lots of things, good and bad, are "normalized" through frequent exposure. But on the whole, the internet is net gain for humanity, and that includes today's youth.

Moving on from there, the "researchers" decide the same memes -- the ones normalizing body shaming and bullying -- are also (somehow!) normalizing something that tends to attract body shaming and bullying.

Whilst the sample for this preliminary research equates to about 5% of Sykora et al.’s (2014) sample, it does uncover a potential ‘hardening’ of social media users’ emotions towards memes. [...] Furthermore, in ridiculing body shape, diet and fitness there is a worry that we are also normalising obesity, poor diet and sedentary behaviour.

If you want to have it both ways, I guess you can. Ridicule = normalization. Why not? I mean, this is "research" that starts with a ridiculous theory and trolls the web for internet detritus to back it up. The "study" culled a bunch of tweets containing hashtags related to body image (#fitnessaddict, #flexibledieting, and… um… #meme[?]) and used the hashtag #tea for a "control." Unsurprisingly, these intrepid researchers found memes being shared without much use of "emotional" words -- at least according to the AI it fed the tweets to.

These results would have ended the "study" right then and there if the researchers were intellectually honest and/or had any idea how meme sharing works. To paraphrase Marshall McLuhan, the meme is the message. They're generally served straight up, with no additional text from those sharing them. If there's any emotion present, it's a like or dislike of the meme itself. Unsurprisingly, there was almost no "emotionality" contained in the tweeted meme dataset.

This isn't so much a research project as it is a pitch for a tweet-hoovering project the researchers would like to see continue. This "research" is basically a roundabout way of asking the UK government for money. It goes under the name "MEMEotive," which should cause involuntary vomiting in any number of readers. (I apologize for not warning you in advance.) This project seeks to hitch its wagon to government-funded social media surveillance pioneered by the war-fighting arm of the UK government.

The project, MEMEotive - Analysing the Effects of Internet Memes on Young Teenagers’ Health and Health Behaviours – builds on the success of EMOTIVE, funded by the Defence Science Technology Laboratory (DSTL) following the London Riots, to detect and measure emotions on social media (Twitter).

MEMEotive aims to understand which memes become popular and how they influence and motivate the health and health behaviours of young people and teenagers.

Speaking of wagon metaphors, MEMEotive needs to gets its horse in front of its cart if it's ever going to understand anything. It may want to familiarize itself with the how and why of memes before it starts attributing a 30% childhood obesity rate to image macros.


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