Recently, I made a parenting mistake.
I showed my kids the best video on the internet: Lemon Demon’s great song, “Ultimate Showdown,” describing an epic battle. I was focused mostly on the great beat and all of the references to superheroes and cultural icons—many of whom the boys already knew—and completely neglected the graphic cartoon violence that ends poorly for everyone.
After a while, I saw a tweet from my wife that illustrated its impact: “OH: It’s a bit gory, and Mr. Rogers covered in blood was a little much, but it’s got a catchy tune.” Bad Dad.
The experience forced me to think more deeply about how to bring the boys up to speed on Internet culture without spawning years of therapy. Inspired by Piaget, my two sons and I poured through about four dozen videos representing important memes over the years. At an average of 3-5 minutes per video, that’s a lot of opportunity to test the patience of children. I tried to filter out the raunch to protect their naive view of the world—which unfortunately, now includes the image of Mister Rogers as a berserker—and focus on the best candidates for kids to enjoy … and what to avoid.
Some popular memes are verboten because of their content, where vulgar, sexually explicit, foul and disturbing are often intermixed. There is no appropriate age for “Two Girls, One Cup,” but there’s a lot of middle ground between that and Dramatic Chipmunk. Kids respond to different content in unusual ways.
There are several memes you can probably skip:
On the one hand, the ingredients are there for unending hours of enjoyment. Tell someone you have a cool link to show them, and instead send them an ’80s music video of Rick Astley. Hilarious. Two problems on the parenting front, however. First, they won’t “get” the video (“Why is the bartender running up walls?”). Second, they will get the joke. Arming your Internet-savvy youngster with this prank will all but guarantee you will be RickRolled until graduation. Not a good idea.
Miss South Carolina
Watching Caitlin Upton garble an answer in a beauty pageant may provide parents an opportunity to talk with youngsters about stereotypes, gender inequalities, and the anxieties of public speaking. For the under-ten set, watching some grown-up make no sense is B-O-R-I-N-G.
Hello, My Future Girlfriend
Completely lost on my kids is how amazing it was that an 11-year-old could make a web site a decade ago, when only around 3 million U.S. children were online. Kids are smart enough to recognize ridicule when when sense it. (See also: Star Wars Kid)
Despite liking both chocolate and rain, the boys had enough after a few seconds of Tay Zonday singing into a condenser microphone. Similarly, “Boom goes the dynamite” may be a hip thing to say, but the boys couldn’t survive the boredom of Brian Collins’ sportscast to get to the Internet catch phrase. My eldest did enjoy watching Noah’s hair flicker for a while, but six years is a long time to see the same face.
Stuff in Foreign Languages
The fictitious laughing interviewer (played by Flemish comedian Tom Van Dyck) was mistaken for real by many. “Erik Hartman” can’t control his laughter when one of his two guests speaks in a high voice. In the a longer version, Hartman looks back on the incident that caused him to be fired. The humor isn’t in the words, but the words aren’t in a language familiar to my boys. They tuned out quickly.
In 2006, my friend Apurva gleefully had me crank up the volume and lean into YouTube—my first experience with the site—to look for a ghost in car commercial. It’s not something I’d do to my kids, even on nights when they are already screaming.
Based on my sons’ reactions, attention span, and later reflection, this is their Top Ten of Internet Memes:
1. Diet Coke and Mentos
The boys were first introduced to these junk food geysers through Mythbusters, so perhaps they were a bit predisposed to loving the video of two men in lab coats and goggles recreating the fountain in front of the Bellagio hotel. They are now more than a little obsessed with getting me to fall for a related prank.
2. Will It Blend?
If kids were the target market for kitchen appliances, Blendtec would have two more customers. The viral marketing campaign uses Blendtec’s product in interesting ways. There is something satisfying about seeing an iPhone become smoke and powder, but the kids most loved watching a wiimote get the same treatment.
3. Cup Stacking World Record
Did you know stacking cups quickly was a sport? It’s also an iPhone app. Jaws dropped while watching Emily Fox set a record placing cups in stacks (since broken). I am clinging to the hope that this feat becomes tied to general cleaning, prompting the boys to go for a world record of their own.
4. Here It Goes Again
I don’t know if the pop song by OK Go owes it success to the Internet, but this music video of the band’s creative use of treadmills is a hit with the kiddies. That’s without showing them the LEGO version.
Whether it is a ninja cat, a skateboarding bulldog, or a primate hating on David Letterman, nothing says kid-friendly entertainment like a critter doing something wacky. Dramatic Chipmunk gets additional points because it is only 5 seconds long.
6. Charlie Bit Me
Take two adorable brothers, throw in a British accent and a set of young teeth, and you get a YouTube sensation to which all siblings can relate. Harry, now 6, won’t re-do the clip, but Charlie may be willing to assume the big brother role: Jasper turns 1 this month.
8. Matrix Ping Pong
My kids have never seen The Matrix, nor have they played ping pong. Put the two together on a Japanese game show, however, and they are delighted.
9. Ask a Ninja
Ninjas are everywhere, fighting the good fight against pirates. I include the Ninja because of how much the boys howled when he described how to kill a ninja. (Psst, it involves John Cougar Mellencamp.)
10. Mind-numbing Songs
Inane songs don’t discriminate. They can be about anything, including food, mammals, reptiles, or a gummy bear. Repetitious lyrics and a relentless beat are a hypnotic combination for children of all ages.
The Jury is Out
Even if they didn’t quite make the cut with my kids, here are some other memes yours may appreciate:
- Beatbox Flute—vote was split, even after listening to Greg Pattillo’s spy songs
- Numa Numa—would have rated higher with English lyrics and treadmills
- Daft Hands—catchy beat, plus writing on hands
- All Your Base Are Belong To Us and Over 9000!—crazy, but involve video games.
- Nintendo Sixty-FOOOOOOOOOOUR—slowed-down screaming sounds funny
- Raymond Crowe Hand Shadows—bunnies and a short song
- Evolution of Dance—well past the duration tolerance of my five-year-old
- Where the Hell is Matt?—cusses in the video title, kids can copy those dance moves
- Star Wars Campaign Commercial—involves Star Wars
- David After Dentist—the boys preferred the riff from Chad Vader
- I Likes Turtles—kids can relate to bizarre answers to straightforward questions
- Potter Puppet Pals—involves a pipe bomb
- Terry Tate: Office Linebacker—involves lots of tackling, stick to the official commercials to avoid swearing
- Technoviking—he’s Chuck Norris’ Chuck Norris, but stop the video a little early (F-bomb in the credits)
For more memes, try browsing Know Your Meme and the Internet Meme Timeline. After taking your kids on a tour of Internet history, they may be ready to appreciate Weezer’s homage video, Pork and Beans. If the next generation can spot at least 5 memes on sight, you’ll know they have been properly assimilated.