They’ve taken our generation by storm and have filled our feeds with “me too” “omg this is so us”, and  “can this be anymore accurate?” among other agreeable mentions.  

But why?
(trigger warning, just be cautious when reading and looking at memes) 

I enjoy memes just as much as everyone else. They’re funny, they’re lighthearted and they help portray what I’m going through or have experienced in life. Plus, some are just plain cute (anything with Baby Yoda Grogu please). Recently, I’ve come across the ‘dark meme’ section of the internet that pertains to mental health (yes, there’s a whole subculture for dark memes). This section of memes offers to provide humor to otherwise taboo subjects. Depression? There’s a meme for that. Anxiety got you running ragged? There’s a meme. Need validation for a toxic trait you have? There’s plenty. 

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It comes across as light-hearted, but memes can also be very telling about what someone may be going through or have experienced in their life. The problem? There’s been very few studies done on memes and their influence. However, from what I have read is that memes are powerful in solidifying someone’s life experience through the eyes of validation. You see, you may feel bad about having too many drinks last night, running late or being disengaged at work or school, or even hooking up with that coworker, but there’s a meme for that. Instantly you’ll feel validated and an excuse was freely given to you so that you no longer feel bad about your risky behavior and choices. Is this correct thinking though? Should we give ourselves excuses to participate in behaviors just because there’s a meme for it?  Or just because we’ve seen a posting about it so therefore it is okay for us to do? I can hear my mom’s voice now, “If everyone jumped off the cliff, would you?”
In today’s society, it seems as though memes are replacing that ever annoying helpful parental lesson. Even subconsciously the meme has a way of affecting how you view your problems or how you view your own behavior. I challenge you to answer, what’s the validation behind the meme? Are you simply following a crowd that may or may not have your best interests? Why do we care so much to be validated by others? Social validation can be classified as a basic human need. We need to feel validated in order to accept ourselves or admit that we’re doing alright in this thing called life.
Robert Chialdini is a social proof theorist (theory of social validation) that stated:

“When we are uncertain about what to do, we will look to other people to guide us. And we do this automatically and unconsciously.”

Robert Chialdini

If we are so uncertain about what we do then we look to the next person who is uncertain about what they do. Suddenly we are a drove of sheep standing at a cliff’s edge not making any progress as a society, we’ve halted our development of self-awareness, and we simply avoid working on our toxic traits. We end up self-sabotaging our progress because we refused to accept that we failed in one way or another and we don’t care to go apologize or fix our behavior. We become stuck….but full of shallow social validation. Man, there’s a lot to unpack in that quote.
Furthermore, my question lies, does that mean that memes are replacing the human need for social validation so much that we’re actually starving for it? We’ve become a society that mostly lives on our phones, computers, or video game consoles to fulfill our social and human connection needs. But are we really fulfilling our needs via technologies?
Does socializing via keyboards, memes, or headsets fulfill that need for conversation, connection, and support? I fear the day that a generation does not know how to converse or connect with another human in person without an aiding device such as a phone, computer, or internet meme. It truly is an art form to learn and adapt our social skills to better understand our environment and those around us. In our interconnected world, it is more pertinent than ever to acknowledge how we converse to others in person and, yes, through the internet. Sometimes, we do mess up and get embarrassed about what we said or what we did in an in-person conversation. As a counselor, I see this often especially in younger adolescents as they navigate their world and are continuing to learn social skills. However, it is important to process those feelings with a trusted adult, friend, or counselor. Typically, we talk it out and laugh then learn what not to do next time. We process those not-so-great feelings and allow it to be another human learning experience. I fear that ‘dark’ memes can be validating in such a way that we no longer allow ourselves to feel shame, guilt, embarrassment, or any other ugly negative emotion–making everything we do or say perfectly acceptable into society. Although those emotions are not fun to process, we must process them in order to grow and become better for ourselves and for the generation behind us. After all, if we chase validation in such a way that is harmful to our own emotional and mental well-being, then we’re only sabotaging our potential; a potential that has the capability to leave lasting effects and become our legacy.

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Meme depicting mental health

Could mental health memes be a coping strategy? Does it help to alleviate some of the struggles we face everyday?

Sound off below of your interpretation of memes and how they make you and others feel. Do you feel that dark memes are a reinforcement and validation of negative behavior? 

Check this out: Bakari Akil II, Ph.D. The Theory of Social Validation, Why you’re not great until someone says you are.

Hannah Smith, M.S.

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