I’ve seen a disturbing trend lately of taking pictures of children and teenagers and turning them into viral memes. Now, before we all get up in arms, I love myself a good meme, and have used them many times to respond to people and have a good laugh. However, I do believe that we have to be careful of what images we use as memes.
I came across a newer meme the other day. I personally will not share the image as I have not obtained consent from this child and/or her family to use it. It figures a 13 year old girl who appeared on Dr. Phil a few months ago with a silly statement she made when distressed. You see, this teenager, who is troubled and aggressive, was forced onto the show by her mother, who was at a loss as to how to discipline her child. Her antics were put on display for everyone to see, and being 13, unable to think about the consequences of her actions, said some pretty silly things when she was upset and angry. In one moment, she got up and threatened her mom, encouraging her to go outside with her so they could deal with their problems.
In the moment, it’s easy for us to turn around and blame her for acting stupid, ridicule her silly gangster accent. But I strongly believe that we need to think twice before sharing this image around.
At the end of the day, this teenage girl was forced onto the show by her mother to get her help. Dr. Phil did send her to a facility to get her help, along with her family, who was severely at a loss as to how to parent her. I do sincerely hope that she is doing better after having been dragged in front of national television to have her behaviour immortalized for everyone to hold against her for her entire life.
I wonder how she feels now, or how even worse, how she will feel when she is an adult, to see her face, name and words used by the masses in this ridiculous fashion. I would be surprised if this meme didn’t have an affect on her for the rest of her life. After all, her full name is out there for anyone to find, and I’m sure that her appearance won’t change enough to allow her to live anonymously in the next few years.
Not all people who have had their pictures appropriated as meme’s have expressed significant consequences of the use of their pictures. Maggie Goldenburger, the person behind the “Ermahgerd” meme, is barely recognizable in the picture of herself, and was caught in a moment of silly playacting.
“For her part, Goldenberger never felt unduly embarrassed about her sudden and unexpected celebrity. If the photo had been an authentic depiction of an authentic moment—an actual artifact from her awkward tween years—she may have felt different. To her, though, it was clearly fiction: just a picture of a kooky made-up character.
Speaking to Goldenberger now, it seems clear that she always felt that the Internet was laughing with her at the obviously ridiculous character she was playing—not at her.” (source: http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2015/10/ermahgerd-girl-true-story)
So here is the question: in the “cash me ousside” meme, are we laughing AT this young woman, or WITH her? Considering the context in which the original footage was taken, and the age of this young girl, I would be hard pressed to believe that people are laughing with her. Or will continue to laugh. And I am hard pressed to believe that in that moment, she was capable of providing consent for her image and words to be appropriated and used online.
The research on the effects of bullies being bullied (or victim-bullies as they are referred to in the academic field) is pretty clear. Study after study has shown that children who use violence and act out are at exponentially higher risk to experience severe consequences on their health, their income-generating power, their mental health and are more likely to commit criminal acts (Arsenault, Bowes & Shakoor, 2009). These children do not need to be mocked and displayed as curiosities on the internet. They deserve empathy, treatment and the capacity to lead a normal teenage life. In the case of this young girl, I worry that this won’t be the case.
When I confronted one internet user about his use of the meme, he responded “shhhh… don’t ruin my buzz” and proceeded to share 4 more versions of the meme on his wall for all his friends to laugh at. Note, this is an adult I am talking about. Who has the proper knowledge about bullying to make informed decisions about sharing memes. And isn’t that the issue with cyberbullying? In the moment, it’s “fun” and it makes people laugh. It allows people to separate themselves from their empathetic nature (Shariff, 2015) and share without thinking of the consequences of their actions.
The most effective way to end bullying is to speak up for the victims of it, even if you do not know them (Salmivalli, 2009). I encourage anyone to speak up whenever you see this child, or any other child, being used to mock or entertain. This trend needs to stop.
Arsenault, L., Bowes, L. Shakoor, S. (2009). Bullying victimization in youths and mental health problems : « Much ado about nothing ? » Psychological Medicine, 40, 717-729.
King, D. (2015) Ermahgerddon: The Untold Story of the Ermahgerd Girl. Taken from: http://www.vanityfair.com/culture/2015/10/ermahgerd-girl-true-story
Salmivalli, C. (2016). Evidence-Based Prevention of Bullying with the KiVa Antibullying program. [Powerpoint slides] Pris de : http://www.gripinfo.ca/Grip/Public/www/doc/faitssaillants/Journ%C3%A9e%20Scientifique%20sur%20l’Intimidation_Programme%20et%20Pr%C3%A9sentations.pdf
Shariff, S. (2015) Sexting and Cyberbullying: Defining the Line for Digitally Empowered Kids. Cambridge University Press.