Social Media/Teen Culture

What’s In A Meme?

In a meeting with a small group of teens at the end of 2019, I asked about memes, expecting to get brought up to speed on those all-too-relatable images floating around the internet. So, I was a little caught off guard when I learned that memes have developed into more than the images themselves, but rather an entire culture that exists both online and offline. I’ve learned the implications of this reality are many and the ways in which meme culture may be forming and informing the way your teens think about and process life is worth, at the very least, being aware of. 

A Brief History…

Contrary to what you might think, a meme isn’t just something that takes up space on the internet. The term “meme” was actually coined by Richard Dawkins, long before internet memes were a reality. He originally defined it in his book The Selfish Gene as “an element of a culture or system of behavior that may be considered to be passed from one individual to another by nongenetic means, especially imitation.” essentially, memes are “a replicator of ideas within a culture.” 

Noted for being amusing, universally understood, and shared often, internet memes developed over time and have worked themselves into the very fabric of social media; your teens likely immediately recognize and/or relate to most memes that they come across their screens. They’re often made up of moments, taken out of context, from pop culture or current events, and given an amusing twist. 

What I find most interesting about the ubiquitousness of the internet meme is how it’s a small sign of the more general meme that Dawkins originally proposed — an element of culture that may be passed by nongenetic means. And according to the group of teens I mentioned at the beginning, their generation proudly creates and lives within “meme culture.” Having self-described meme culture as “emotional shorthand,” teens these days aren’t just passing amusing images and quotes around the internet — they’re allowing their interpersonal connections to become pervaded with hand motions, phrases, and expressions that, much like internet memes, communicate universally relatable realities.     

Why Memes?

When I asked teens why meme culture seems to have picked up lately, one responded by passionately articulating the various pressures and challenges that she and her peers face on a daily basis. She explained to me that memes are just simpler, easier ways to make light of some of the less pleasant parts of life. Perhaps one of the greatest illustrations of this is the rise of what we are now seeing in light of the coronavirus. We also saw this trend not too long ago with the WWIII memes, which we addressed for your teens on our YouTube channel. In response to both of these difficult and uncertain periods of time, Gen-Zer’s (and plenty others well beyond that generational cohort’s age) are sharing their feelings through sarcastic memes. 

These are but two examples of how teens are using meme culture to express their feelings or cope with negative feelings around certain issues rather than finding healthy ways to express or process. One viewer on our YouTube channel summed up the general utility of memes by leaving a comment saying that “laughing at memes is the only way I can cope with the thought of war. I know it’s not a laughing matter but if I can’t laugh I cry and I don’t feel like crying.” For teens, memes are just a way of avoiding the pain that certain challenges of life bring; they’re those universally relatable things that can make them feel less alone in struggles, and can help them find amusement, even in unpleasant situations. 

What Next? 

While I don’t think meme culture is necessarily a grave threat to the psyche or emotional health of Gen Z, I do think that meme culture identifies some areas within the psyche and emotional health of Gen-Z that needs to be addressed. The members of this generation, growing up with far more access to real-time updates on all things —  including all things tragic, disappointing, or threatening — seem to be taking in more than they can handle emotionally. As a result, teens today are looking for some sense of validation in their feelings, in the pressures they face, and the temptation to give in to despair. It’s much easier to “process” large events like a potential world war, polarized politics, and climate change, or even everyday events such as standardized testing and college applications when you feel like there are other people unsure how to process it alongside you. Misery loves company, right? 

While I don’t think an outright conversation with your teens about meme culture is necessarily productive, I would suggest identifying ways that you can help your teens grow in self-awareness and emotional maturity. Teens are confronting a lot these days and it’s a lot easier for them to settle for a quick meme — whether that’s a simple gesture made to a friend or a funny picture they come across on Instagram — to ease the pain of a tough moment. But they need guidance and support in learning how to actually embrace and process the challenges they face. The temptation to despair is real and meme culture will always perpetuate an attitude of numbing the pain. But if we really believe in the hope that Jesus promises, it’s up to us to guide one another through the small deaths of this life, so that we can find real freedom and hope in His Resurrection. 

About the Author

Leah Murphy

Leah serves as Life Teen's Director of Digital Evangelization. As a graduate of John Paul the Great Catholic University, with a background in video and a passion for that wild place where faith and culture meet, she lives to tell God's love story to the world in the digital space. Dwelling in San Diego, CA, she spends all her free time doing all the things with her friends, enjoying the best music out there, and going on every adventure that comes her way.