Internet memes are a bit like an inside joke you share with the entire internet.
People can share experiences, opinions, and feelings easily by using an image that has a funny or relatable caption.
While memes are usually light-hearted, many social media sites and forums are increasingly playing host to communities that share so-called depressive memes – memes about death, suicide, isolation, or hopelessness.
Although some might find these memes disturbing, our research found that people with depression actually prefer memes that relate to their experiences of mental health.
This might be because people with depression actually use humor in a different way – partly because of the unique way a person with depression controls their negative emotions.
With depressive memes becoming more common, our team wanted to know how depression influences the way people view these memes. We initially surveyed a total of 200 people between the ages of 18 and 56.
After completing a questionnaire, we then grouped the participants based on the severity of their reported depressive symptoms, focusing on those who had either high or low depression. A total of 43 people had significant depressive symptoms.
These participants then took an online survey, where they were shown a series of depressive and neutral internet memes.
We then asked them to rate each meme on a five-point scale for humour, relatability, shareability, and mood-improving potential.
Finally, participants completed another questionnaire to examine how they were able to control their emotions.
As humour can be used as a way of regulating our emotions, we wanted to know whether depressed people, who had difficulty regulating their emotions, related to the depressive memes.
Obviously not all people with depression enjoy or engage with these memes, but it allowed us to determine a sub-population of people who might.
We found that the depressed group rated depressive memes as more relatable and funnier compared to those in the non-depressed group.
More importantly, the depressed group also thought these memes could be used to improve the mood of others with depression, while the non-depressed group didn’t.
The different way both groups perceived the memes was influenced by the way they controlled their emotions – which supports the idea that people with depression have a different, darker sense of humour than those who aren’t.
Emotional control is a person’s ability to respond to experiences with a range of emotions that are considered socially tolerable depending on the situation.
People that are able to control their emotions have an easier time reducing negative thoughts and feelings when viewing things related to coping with depression.
We also found that depressed people who struggled to control their emotions were most likely to enjoy depressive memes.
Depressed people were also more likely to report sharing depressive memes with other people facing similar difficulties, and believed that depressive memes can improve the mood of others with depression.
It might be that depressive memes help depressed people change the meaning of negative thoughts and feelings, allowing them to make light of bad experiences.
More importantly, as depressive memes are seen by depressed people as funny and enjoyable, our findings suggest they may increase positive emotions in some people with depression – even if the content isn’t what most people would think of as positive.
For depressed people, dark humour and depressive memes might be a form of cognitive reappraisal.
Cognitive reappraisal is the way a person changes their interpretation of a certain event or situation that has happened to them.
While most people can change the way they perceive a negative thought or event by focusing instead on the positive things that have happened during their day, depressed people instead compare their negative thoughts and feelings to something which could have been worse.
An example of a depressive meme. Image is credited to Umair Akram.
So, memes might help a person with depression see their situation differently, and change the way they view negative thoughts and experience.
However, not all depressed people use dark humour to help with cognitive reappraisal – some might simply have a different sense of humour compared to others. Depressed people also might favour dark humour as it’s more relatable to their state of mind.
Although further research will be needed to understand whether depressive memes could be used to improve the mood of those experiencing depression, we consider this form of online interaction as a positive way for depressed people to maintain social relationships and have access to social support systems.
Depression can often make socialising difficult, as key symptoms can include feeling worthless, having little interest in things that were once enjoyable, having trouble explaining their feelings, or fearing they will be seen as a burden by other people.
With memes, depressed people can share their experience in a simple way – possibly even allowing depressed people to form socially supportive and emotional bonds with others. It might also help them feel less alone in their experience with depression.
Depressive memes have received a bad reputation for promoting mental health problems.
However, our research shows that for those experiencing depression, it can actually have the opposite effect.
These memes can destigmatise depression for those who have it, and help them feel a sense of community.
Major Depressive Disorder is predominately characterized by disordered affect (i.e. sustained negative affect, absence of positive affect)1 and is associated with marked cognitive (e.g. impaired memory and executive control)2,3 and behavioural (e.g. social and inter-personal function) deficits, and difficulties in the adequate regulation of emotions.
Symptoms of depression are highly prevalent, affecting up to 27% of the general population according to recent meta analytic data4.
A number of cognitive models have been advanced to explain the mechanisms underlying the development and maintenance of depression5.
Emphasized in these models is the notion that depressed individuals, and those at risk for depression, display cognitive biases in several aspects of information processing including attention, interpretation and memory6–8.
It is speculated that these biases are more than epiphenomenal in nature, serving a causal role in the development and maintenance of the disorder9. Indeed, it is well established that depressed individuals often display an elevated perception of negative stimuli and interpret ambiguous neutral information in a disorder congruent manner10–15.
With that in mind, the valence in which such information/stimuli are interpreted (i.e. positive vs. negative) governs the strength and direction of an emotional response16.
In turn, interpretative biases may be mediated by an individual’s ability to employ effective emotion-regulation strategies when required.
Another key feature associated with the experience of depression is impairment in social functioning17.
Here, any perceived reward value related to social interaction appears to be decreased in depressed individuals18, which may partially explain the reduction of social behaviour in this population19.
As mentioned, depressed individuals display a tendency to interpret ambiguous information in a disorder congruent manner8.
Relatedly, similar deficits in the perception of emotional stimuli are evidenced, whereby a mood congruent bias emerges in the presence of affective stimuli (i.e. emotional faces and prosody)20–22.
In particular, when compared with healthy controls, individuals experiencing symptoms of depression display impairments in the discrimination of emotionally neutral, happy, and sad faces21–23.
However, examination of social cognition deficits in depression remain limited to traditional response time and emotion perception tasks largely using words or emotional faces as stimuli24.
To that end, using a novel humour-processing task, Uekermann and colleagues24examined cognitive and affective humour processing in depression.
Specifically, depressed patients and healthy controls were compared in valance ratings and the ability to accurately determine punchlines for presented jokes.
Deficits in social cognition emerged amongst those with depression in affective (i.e. blunted humour ratings) and cognitive (i.e. impaired accuracy) aspects of humour processing.
The experience of humour is considered vital in maintaining physical and psychological wellbeing25. However, supporting evidence remains limited to specific populations (e.g. individuals experiencing experimentally induced stress) and style of humour (e.g. positive vs negative) examined26.
In healthy subjects, positive styles (affiliative and self-enhancing) are more effective in down-regulating negative and up-regulating positive emotion when compared to negatively oriented humour (aggressive and self-defeating)27.
Therefore, positive humour may function as an effective form of emotion regulation whereby the accompanying positive emotion serves to facilitate the reappraisal of negative emotions28. That said, research has yet to examine whether depressed individuals respond to positive humour in the same way.
Tentatively, Perchtold and colleagues29 evidence symptoms of depression to be associated with individual differences in the strategic approach taken when using humour to facilitate cognitive reappraisal.
Here, those indicating symptoms of depression favoured the comparative approach, where situational threat is compared with another more threatening event (i.e. it could be worse). In contrast, non-depressed individuals reported preferential attention for positive situational factors, which remain detached from threat (e.g. appreciating the surroundings or accomplishments of the day).
Few studies use stimuli directly related to the experience of depressive symptoms26. Rather, most studies examining humour perception in depression rely on self-report questionnaire measures, whereas experimental studies generally use positively valanced stimuli (i.e. amusing photographs and films)26.
Depressed individuals potentially differ in their conceptualisation of positive and negative humour compared non-depressed people. In particular, negatively oriented humour may appeal to this population when considering the relatability and salience to the experience of depression.
If true, negative humour related to the experience of depression may also serve to regulate emotion in a comparative manner.
Despite reduced face-to-face social interaction18, perceived social support via interaction with others on the internet appears beneficial in reducing symptoms of depression in a sample of US college students30.
With that in mind, the experience of depression has been frequently linked to prolonged internet use31–34 and anecdotally, the frequent observation and sharing of memes. Internet memes are an element of a culture or system of behaviour (e.g. an image with a caption) that are widely distributed by groups of people with shared characteristics of experiences through electronic means35.
Typically, memes depict humorous social commentaries which are contextually relevant to a particular demographic of individuals36.
A number of social media sites and forums host various pages dedicated to the sharing of memes specifically related to the proximal experience of depression, often termed depressive memes. Whilst highly prevalent, research has yet to examine how symptoms of depression may influence, or be influenced by, the interpretation of affective internet memes related to the experience of depression (i.e. depressive memes).
Engaging with media (i.e. television, music, internet) is known to regulate general mood state (i.e. regardless of valance). However, emotion regulation deficits of limited awareness and coping strategies predict increased media use in the occurrence of a negative mood state37.
When used adaptively, emotion regulation strategies (i.e. cognitive reappraisal, distraction) can increase: expression of positive emotion; interpersonal functioning; and psychological wellbeing38.
In the current context, depressive memes could diminish the meaning of particular events (i.e. perspective placement) while concurrently allowing one to make light of a negative experience (i.e. positive appraisal).
The goal of the present research was to examine whether individuals experiencing symptoms of depression interpret depressive memes differently as compared to non-depressed controls.
More specifically, we examined group differences in the perception of emotional valance, humour, relatability and shareability of depressive and control (depicting general neutral or positive social commentaries) internet memes.
In addition, participants assessed the mood improving potential of each meme. Finally, difficulties in emotion regulation mediate the relationship between depression with humour perception and cognitive biases of information processing29.
As such, we examined the extent to which deficits in emotion regulation mediated any confirmed perceptual differences. As the first study to examine how symptoms of depression may influence the interpretation of depressive memes, we consider this to be an exploratory investigation with no a-priori hypotheses.