A dubious report says memes are to blame for making teens fat

Antonio Guillem/ShutterstockThe ‘distracted boyfriend’ meme, which a Sweden advertising watchdog recently ruled is sexist.
  • Loughborough University researchers told a British parliamentary committee that memes may be to blame for teen obesity, saying that many mock fitness and healthy eating.
  • The study also claimed that memes normalize ridiculing people who don’t appear to be healthy.
  • The conclusions are tenuous, and the researchers say that a parliamentary committee should look into it more.
  • The letter may be part of a trend where Europe is increasingly hostile to meme culture.

Are memes to blame for overweight teens? That’s the conclusion researchers at England’s Loughborough University came away with, and it wants the government to investigate.

Five researchers at the university wrote a letter to a British parliamentary committee titled “MEMEotive – Analysing the Effects of Internet Memes on Young Teenagers’ Health and Health Behaviours. It warns them that internet memes cause health risks. Specifically, they write, memes that ridicule “diet and fitness” may also normalize “obesity, poor diet, and sedentary behaviour.”

“The potential impact of Internet memes appears to be harmful and yet this harm is hidden in images and text,” the researchers write in their conclusion.

For example, the researchers cite memes that mock fitness and healthy eating, indicating that the people who make and share them have normalizing eating a lot of pizza and joking that eating chocolate is “healthy eating.”

Loughborough University memesLoughborough UniversityResearchers say this meme can contribute to obesity.
Loughborough University memesLoughborough UniversityA meme cited in the appendix of the letter.

The letter draws a few other conclusions as well. It points out that misinformation is rampant on social media, and that authorities need to be aware about bad health and dietary advice that goes viral.

Furthermore, just as memes can normalize unhealthy habits, it says, cruel ones can also perpetuate ridiculing people who don’t appear to be healthy.

“Internet memes may be playing a part in a general apathy towards behaviours that ridicule individuals and groups who display ‘non-normative,’ ‘fat,’ ‘unhealthy,’ ‘irresponsible,’ and ‘at fault’characteristics,” the researchers write. “The risks that this poses to future generations and our youth are noteworthy.”

Loughborough University memeLoughborough UniversityThis meme, researchers suggester, normalized hostility toward people.

The researchers came to their conclusions by studying the sentiment of two weeks’ worth of tweets that used the hashtags #meme, #fitnessaddict, and #flexibledieting, using tweets that used the hashtag #tea as a relative control. Based on the sentiments of those tweets, they found some of the behaviour problematic – there were gleeful tweets that mocked the obese, as well as apathetic tweets that dismissed positive health habits.

But many feel the links are somewhat tenuous. Most people using memes don’t do so don’t necessarily attach hashtags to them, much less the ones researchers looked at. The researchers also didn’t have demographic data about the people sharing them. And, of course, it’s hard to say if the memes anyone shares or looks at online have any real effect on a person’s dietary habits. But in the end, the academics are calling for more research into the subject.

At the same time, the paper is arguably another example of Europe’s increasing hostility toward memes. While America remains the wild west of meme culture, the European Parliament recently passed a copyright law that critics say can stifle the free flow of memes across the internet. And an advertising body in Sweden ruled that the “Distracted Boyfriend” meme is sexist.

Business Insider Emails & Alerts

Site highlights each day to your inbox.

Follow Business Insider Australia on Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.