When Memes Collide With Kids, These Train Wrecks Can Happen.

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When Memes Collide With Kids, These Train Wrecks Can Happen.

Parents love taking silly videos of their kids. When I was young, my dad shot home movies of me, inexplicable speaking in a British accent and running around with my siblings like little maniacs. That was before social media. Now, when parents see children doing funny things, they throw it on Facebook and YouTube. But unlike home movies, those clips can spread to a massive audience.

The result is instant fame — turning silly antics into fodder for intense Internet scrutiny.

When you post a video, at most, you get a few comments from friends — an appreciative retweet, maybe a couple likes on Facebook. If you blog, you may develop a following, but for the most part, your sphere of influence is limited. Your sister-in-law may mention a backhanded compliment about your choice of lifestyle, but strangers won’t flood your inbox with criticism — or, on the flip side, offer to pay for your kid’s college education.

Some clips go viral, and the small ripple becomes a wave of instant fame. When it happens, the kids become bona-fide memes, often with overwhelming and unwelcomed interest. How do you handle the exposure? How do you shield kids from the harsh and often cruel echo chambers of comments?

When your child is a meme, it’s tricky to navigate the course. And when you didn’t have a hand in spreading it, it can be downright exploitative. Internet celebrities often manage their own fame, but when the star is a child, parents often deal with it in very different ways.

Richard Dawkins coined the term meme, pronounced “meem,” in 1976 to describe the spread of ideas, or “a unit of cultural transmission.” In the 2000s, the reference gained traction on the Internet with viral images and videos that spread swiftly with help of forums like 4Chan and Reddit.

In a nutshell, memes are contagious — you see something funny, say, a picture of a dog wearing a ballerina outfit, and you send it to friends. The cycle continues, first trickling from friend to friend, and then growing exponentially from acquaintance to acquaintance. Pretty soon, everyone is watching it.

You can’t help but feel a little bad for David DeVore, Jr. After going to the dentist and receiving oral surgery, his reaction to anesthesia became an Internet phenomenon. While in the car, he asked his father questions — like “Is this real life?” and “Is this going to be forever?” — and telling him he had only two fingers. At one point he even began screaming in exhaustion.

The video is cute, and with over 100,000 views, his foray into Internet fame will leave him with neither lasting scars nor massive riches. Still, his parents did make a substantial chunk of change — around $150,000 — from the clip, but they won’t buy splurging.

I asked David’s father how fame has treated his family. “We’ve had a great time with the fame from the video,” he said. “We’ve been to Hollywood, Boston, New York and even Brazil. We’ve used part of the money for both boys’ private school tuition and hope to continue the same when they go to college.”

“David After Dentist” is a best-case scenario, and according to his father, he’s become a well-adjusted boy. Besides participating in a few conferences on how to handle fame and a stint to fundraise for Operation Smile, the family returned to normalcy with a little extra cash stored up.

Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, nine-year-old Caine Monroy builds elaborate arcade games out of cardboard boxes in his father’s auto parts store. He only has one customer, though, a filmmaker Nirvan Mullick who stopped by the shop. Upon discovering his talents, he arranged a surprise flash mob on Facebook and filmed a whimsical documentary to bring awareness to the arcade.

The video was a hit, and with over three million views, Caine catapulted to Internet stardom, giving him more customers than he’d ever imagined. “He has been making thousands of grown men weep at work,” Mullick tweeted, according to the Los Angeles Times.

Caine’s father, George, agreed to the video, but he never expected the unknown filmmaker to do much — for Mullick, it was a project of passion. Still, before he posted the clip, he had the foresight to set up a scholarship fund for Caine — aiming to raise $25,000. Then, two days after the attention poured in, the Goldhirsh Foundation gave $250,000. Mullick went on to start a non-profit, called “Imagination Foundation,” to foster and support innovation in children. Meanwhile, Caine still does what he did before the video, just with more tools for creativity.

In both cases, David and Caine had a positive brush with Internet fame — but that’s because they were able to go back to normal life.

With an astonishing array of content on the Web, why do certain moments shoot to fame while others stay anonymous?

It turns out there are similarities between that memetic spread and biology. Zachary Seward at the Nieman Journalism Lab explained that the spread of viral videos spread is reminiscent of viruses, infecting one host before moving to another. In fact, in political reporting, they are so similar to biological dissemination that they can often be tracked using the methods from bioinformatics and genetic sequence analysis.
Memes often spread due to their inherent value, but the conclusion doesn’t take into account the ability certain power-wielders have to manipulate the flow of information that pushes memes to the forefront of Internet culture.

If an article or image is picked up by bigger sources — moving from Tumblr to the Huffington Post, for example — the chances of going viral skyrockets. Once a notable bloggers, like when Perez Hilton or Videogum’s Gabe Delahaye, has enough clout to create their own push, memes come fast and furious. But trying to determine which pieces of content become viral is nearly as impossible as controlling the spread of one.

That’s why researcher Susan Blackmore calls Internet memes, “temes”, or ideas that spread through technology. Comparing its spread to opening a Pandora’s Box, once a meme takes hold, she said, it’s impossible to squelch.

For every Caine’s Arcade, there are darker tales of memes that run the gamut from cruel to damaging — and a video uploaded for one purpose can be twisted into a very different use online.

If children are different or unusual, ruthless trolls can target them, such as the case with Adam Holland, a young man with Down syndrome. After a Florida radio station used an old photo of him for its very un-P.C. website section, called “Retarded News,” the images spread across the Internet. His parents didn’t notice it at first, but now they’re taking legal action after much emotional distress.

Holland’s case closely echoes another in the U.K., where the baby picture of a young woman with Down syndrome, named Heidi Crowter, became an Internet meme. Trolls used the image, taken from a local support group website, to insult people with Down syndrome. Her mother contacted the police, but was told it was out of their hands.

Memes are hard to trace — either to their origins or the pockets of the Internet they’ve reached — due to the same ability that allows them to spread so rapidly and leave a long trail to clean up.

Strangers turned them into memes, showing the difficultly in repairing the damage when it’s out on the Internet. But in both cases, the nastiness was extreme outliers. Most times, viral memes draw a mix of support and trolls. For the parents of Adalia Rose, for example, the best of intentions can often start positively, but lead to virulent trolls.

Adalia has a rare genetic disease, called progeria, which causes rapid aging. At just 14 pounds, she’s spindly, without hair or eyelashes. Her average life expectancy is around 13 years, so she doesn’t go to school. But her mother let her start a fan page. And for a while, it was a fun way for friends and family to check in with the spunky and emotionally tough kid.

She’s outgoing and a good dancer, and when you put those together, you get entertaining videos of her strutting to songs. Her family met a social media expert to set up a Twitter and YouTube account for her, and she started to get some attention.

Then things got nasty. Trolls found her irresistible, and viciously criticizing her unusual appearance, while lambasting her mother for putting her on the Internet. They also wrote awful comments about her on her Facebook and YouTube pages, among other sites.

What started as a positive expression for an isolated girl turned into a dark nightmare when trolls bombarded her with hurtful messages. One troll, named Carl Ludwig Sherburne, took a dominant role in bullying, doctoring photos of her and mocking her in YouTube spoofs. Adalia didn’t see the growing collection of hateful content, but her family did, and they were devastated.

Her mother confronted a few trolls — even Skyping with Sherburne, who later retracted his initial statements about Adalia and her family.

Even when people respond like decent human beings towards a child-centric meme, trolls can still write hurtful comments about them. Anytime you put a picture of your child online, you risk criticism — there’s no shelter when anonymity can cloak the cruelest comments.

So think twice before you upload that photo or video. Or if you already have, think about taking it off. The best defense for shielding a child from criticism is not to put them out there in the first place. If it’s too late, and you’ve attracted trolls, as was the case with Holland and Crowter, you can curb the mocking through legal actions, such as sending cease and desist letters to websites that host the material.

But one bit of caution: if it’s on one or a few sites, you can take the legal route, but once it has spread wide and far, the only thing left is to turn off the computer and look the other way.

You might think it’s not a big deal to slap photos and videos online, but these cases — even the positive ones — underline how you lose control of your content once you feed it to the Web.

Memes can make you famous or infamous, but they also spreading ideas that affect society at large. Barack Obama jumped on social media, for example, because of its ability spread his message accurately and quickly to the highly-desirable 18-to-34-year-old demographic.

Meanwhile, Hillary Clinton discovered it’s best to go along with a meme when you find yourself caught in one. After “Texts from Hilary,” a blog celebrating her cool-headed persona, gained popularity, she submitted an entry of her own. Of course, it’s easy to play along when a meme portrays you in a positive light.

There are more to memes than meets the eye. As technology evolves to become an even greater part of our lives, their power and impact to starts fads is undeniable — especially since we can’t stop the spread of LOLcats.

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