Memes Cause Teen Obesity? That's A Bit Of A Stretch, Loughborough University

In one of the more ridiculous stories of the week, Loughborough academics sent a letter to UK parliament, informing them that memes cause teen obesity… 

There’s a whole lot to disagree with here, so consider this my open letter to Loughborough University about their letter to Parliament (feeling mighty Inception-ish here).

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Hi Dr Ash Casey, Dr Martin Sykora, Dr Suzanne Elayan, Professor Tom Jackson and Professor Lorraine Cale,

I want to start by saying I am in no way denying the knowledge and expertise gained in your respective areas. I also appreciate there is a nationwide obesity problem, which we need to sort out. Plus, you got some international coverage out of it, which will do well for Loughborough’s domain authority, so good for you.

But, respectfully, memes are not the problem. They never were and through making this conclusion, you’ve jumped a shark so gigantic, it puts Fonzie to shame.

Let’s break down your work to my wider audience here. Using several years-old memes in their study, the researchers argue that the content of internet memes encourage obesity, apathy and lethargy in children. 

They write that “a substantial number of individuals on Twitter share health-related internet memes, with both positive and negative messages,” which “contain inappropriate material.”

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With this wider consumption of memes, they argue “there is evidence of uncritical consumption of on-line health-related information by teenagers and a lack of regulation and quality control in relation to on-line health information,” calling it an “over optimism” that leads to an “online vulnerability” in young people.

“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.”

And they do not let up in this conclusion, steering into the skid by saying the “dangers of inaccurate/inappropriate health messages” lead to unhealthy lifestyles that “cost the NHS billions every year.”

So, if I am so sum this argument up in a TL;DR kind of way, young people can take a joke told through memes, but treat them as if they were 100% reality and (to use their words) “health messages.”

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That’s the problem. That’s the leap in believability, which is the fatal flaw in this study. Looking past the fact this parliamentary letter reads a little fat-phobic, they believe that policing the internet by removing images of obese people and jokes about food will make this problem go away.

False. 

Obesity in the UK, just like broader healthcare, is an institutional and societal issue. The buck lies solely in a mesh of parental and national issues. Something systemic like this requires meaningful study and resolution. Blaming memes is a unnecessary distraction from the bigger problem. Just like alcoholism isn’t fixed by banning pictures of booze.

When you’re ready to try again, we’ll be waiting.