What are memes? It’s quite possible that parents like me have wondered what their children were referring to when they said, “Look at this meme!” Although a bit confused by this term, we might have pretended to have the situation entirely under control, not asking what it is so as to not point out the generational gap between our kids and ourselves. At that point, we began to have an unexpected look into our children’s world.

If we allow ourselves to be curious – instead of labelling this new way of communicating as a waste of time, or useless, or even a danger – a fruitful and stimulating dialogue between our kids and us can begin.

The origin of memes

It’s a word that comes from the Greek word mímēma, which means "imitation." The term was first coined by Richard Dawkins, a British biologist, in his 1976 book, "The Selfish Gene," which studied how concepts of evolutionary biology apply to cultural information. According to Dawkins, similarly to a gene, a meme is a unit of cultural information, an idea, a behavior, which is transferred from one person to another and spreads quickly and virally. Therefore, they are “elements of a culture or a civilization” that are transmitted by non-genetic means – rather, through imitation.

Today we speak about "internet memes," which are images or videos accompanied by funny phrases, which eventually spread virally around the internet. Virality – or rapid diffusion on the web – is an essential characteristic of memes, without which they would simply be iconic messages. A chain effect occurs, giving rise to consensus and sharing, reaching even millions of people through social media.

The success of memes is due to the fact that they are easily “consumed” and have the sole purpose of entertaining (although sometimes they do contain important content). During the quarantine, many memes circulated – some inspired by current events and others by statements of politicians or scientists. Some were hilarious, while others pointed out rather serious matters.

Returning to the dialogue with our children, memes can bring together two seemingly opposite and distant worlds; in fact, many memes portray various facets of adolescent life, moods, and thoughts, including difficulties they might have in relationships with their peers, parents, and school.

Memes bring about certain awareness which, occurring on a basis of healthy irony; help us not to label, not to judge, and not to lose patience. Rather, they help us to discover – with a smile – how it’s possible to patiently endure our children’s maturing and help us to understand their world. Conversely, when they see a meme about the strange behaviors or fixations of us parents, they discover that they are not the only victims of “old” and “severe” parents. The laughter that memes bring out of them, along with helping them feel like part of a community, embodies the phrase "misery loves company," and they will probably view our faults and us with more leniency.

Intelligent ways to use the language of memes

We adults often mislabel all new things from the youngest generation as useless. But this couldn’t be more wrong! Here are a few examples of how memes may be useful: in school, they may help to summarize or memorize philosophical theories or historical events, in other educational realms, they may be used in oratories or in contexts of aggregation in ways to involve children in the meetings. Of course, there are those that are a bit extreme or vulgar, but that’s when we as parents or educators take advantage of an opportunity to teach our children about choices. We are able to show them, using that one example, how everything has both a positive side and a negative side. It’s up to us to distinguish the good from the bad, following our conscience, which naturally leans toward the good.

Let's not close ourselves off in our inability to understand what technology means to our children, but let's experience it together with them by being taught and being enthusiastically involved in innovations. That way, we may become their allies.

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