School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences


19 Oct 2018

Memes may encourage adolescents to be fat and lazy, warn researchers

Loughborough academics have presented a report to MPs to warn that social media memes are encouraging obesity, apathy and lethargy in children.

Dr Ash Casey, Dr Martin Sykora, Dr Suzanne Elayan, Professor Tom Jackson and Professor Lorraine Cale carried out a study which looked at the negative messages young people were exposed to on a daily basis through images shared on sites such as Instagram and Twitter.

The researchers presented a report to the parliamentary Science and Technology select committee spelling out the “anti-health” themes of hugely popular shared memes*, which they said risked “normalising potential damaging behaviour”.

Examples included a picture of a fat squirrel with the text ‘me thinking about my next meal after I just ate’ underneath.

“It’s vice validation,” said project lead Dr Casey. “When you look at these things you find them funny and rationalise them, but the messages they give are harmful and normalise negative health behaviours.

“We had the idea to analyse the impact of memes about a year ago.

“We wanted to look at the what young people were accessing and what messages they were being exposed to.”

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).

The team is looking for funding to extend the project to work with schools and gain a better understanding of how memes are used and perceived, and the ways in which they affect teenagers.

MEMEotive will also explore the potential large scale harm posed by negative memes.

The report said: “We need to know the types of health information and knowledge that teenagers are exposed to because social media is an increasingly central aspect of their daily lives and social interactions.

“Determining the impact of Internet memes on 13 to 16-year-olds’ health decisions is imperative because these should be considered as new forms of public pedagogy – for example, spaces, sites, and languages of education and learning that exist outside of the walls of the institution of schools.”

*An Internet meme usually consists of an image with text. The same image can be re-used to convey different messages. 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.