Social media are an integral part of life for most of us. From Facebook to 4Chan, we use the Internet to share ideas and anecdotes, and to keep in touch with friends and family across the globe. Memes are usually a humorous image, video clip, or text that is copied and, in some cases, altered and spread across the Internet. They have been around as long as any social media site. They can be inspirational or obscene, profound or mocking — really, the possibilities are limited only by the creator’s imagination. All the same, the majority of Internet memes are intended to mock others or humanity altogether, from nations to sects, from religions to genders. Are these and other Internet memes creating mental laziness? After all, the user need not take the time to craft an original response. Instead, the user can select a pre-designed response. Is there an ethical code for the use of internet memes? Can individuals become addicted to memes and their use? What about the individuals used in Internet meme creation? Are there unforeseen consequences in the use of Internet memes? Do Internet memes cause harm?
Psychologically speaking, Internet memes do have adverse effects on our minds. According to an article in Experimental Psychology, memes with a strong bias will cause the brain to respond by reconfiguring its memory storage and even erase events and items of possible importance because they are deemed unimportant via mockery or absurdity. The use of memes can also be seen as a form of mental laziness, in that, while one has the ability to think on one’s own, ,one chooses not to. In this example, it would mean that instead of one formulating one’s own response to say, a Facebook status, one uses an Internet meme from a Google search. Granted, there could be more humor in using the meme. Nevertheless, it’s still an example of lack of cognitive thought and more of an automated response. Memes can make important data seem unimportant to the brain, reduce complex issues to binaries, causing mental laziness to flourish. The user gets a reward of instant gratification. The brain is a muscle — use it or lose it. Memes require no thought besides a basic need to respond. Someone else has done the work, and all it takes is a quick copy-and-paste. In our brains, this reduces our need for cognitive thought and, like laziness affects the body physically, mental laziness affects the brain and its ability to, simply put, think.
Furthermore, there have been cases of meme addiction. Some ndividuals respond with or overshare Internet memes constantly on various social media sites or collect meme images in the thousands. How could someone become addicted to Internet memes? Like most human endeavors, it’s for the reward. In this case, the reward is a feeling of being witty/smart/funny/good on top of “likes” or other acknowledgments of the post. Neurologically speaking, this reward releases endorphins in the brain, a natural high. A natural drug. One that people can become addicted to. We witness it with extreme-sports athletes, adrenaline junkies, and — yes — even with users of Internet memes. After all, addiction is defined as being addicted to a substance, thing, or activity. Gloria McMillan, of the University of Arizona, said, “It [the use of internet memes] resembles nothing so much as a rat pulling a lever. This is how (laboratory) rats are trained.” Just as the rat pulls the lever and a pellet treat is dispensed, an individual copies and pastes a meme and gets an instant reward, with very limited effort.
Memes can be absurd, offensive, or humorous. There are these essentially good memes, like inspirational quotes or just family-friendly funny images. A meme is a meme is a meme. No matter the rating, overuse is an addictive trait at the worst, mental laziness at the least.
These are just some of the psychological effects of Internet memes, but what about the ethics of their use? When a meme is created, should the impact on the individual featured in the meme or the subject even be considered? Are there consequences from the creation and use of memes, both foreseeable and unforeseeable? With research supporting the negative neurological and psychological impact of Internet memes, should we be more mindful of their use and work toward doing away with them altogether? Or are memes here to stay? Are they an easy and — at least, in one’s own mind — blameless way to express or deflect feelings? A way to take a serious situation and present it in the light of humor, attempting to alleviate stress or fear? Should some memes be considered expressions of art?
These are but a few questions that may come to mind. Indeed whole books could be written on the ethical dilemma caused by Internet memes. Simply put: There are too many variables, or I don’t know yet. It’s true that many memes are used to ridicule individuals or groups, sometimes in what could be considered poor taste. Yet, on the other hand, some can offer tidbits of knowledge or wisdom — even inspirational and uplifting quotes. Like the Internet itself, memes are a tool. Their full impact becomes apparent only in how and how often they are used.
With that in mind we should try to keep in mind the effects on ourselves and others from their use, be it psychological, ethical, or even physical. Are they a form of emotional response or even bullying? The basic question, the one we should ask before all our decisions, is Could it cause harm? If the answer is a resounding “Yes,” then we need to rethink before commiting to an action. Even something as simple as an image with words on it can create a whole host of problems — for the individual featured in the meme, for the user, the receiver, and even for the creator of the meme. Is a brief reward worth the possible shame, feeling of being ostracized, anger? Or even more extreme possibilities like legal problems, physical altercations — even the possible loss of life? That may seem far-fetched, but one never knows what the outcome will be in any event. Anything is possible. The negative effects of a related Internet phenomenon, Internet Bullying, are well documented.
While more research is needed, the evidence of the negative psychological effects is noteworthy and demands further study. The ethical argument is still in its infancy. With such a broad view, there is no argument, in my opinion; there are simply too many variables. If, for instance, we were to narrow it down to memes offensive to women, then a solid ethical argument could be made. In a general sense, it’s best to look at the foreboding notion of a mentally lazy society, one that will be very selective about cell phones and coffee but won’t be able to think. Memes, emoticons, emojis, and other prefabricated responses diminish our ability to remain cognitively sharp and linguistically sound. After all, in the real world, we cannot use memes, and if we lose our ability to effectively communicate, then our future is bleak, indeed. In this light, the use of memes could be seen as unethical to the overall human condition — even to human survival.
In short, use your words.