My 6 year old son came loudly into the house. It was normal, almost expected. It does most things loudly and I love it for it.
He dropped his orange school bag in an awkward place where it’s not supposed to be, then walked over to our Alexa studio, located next to the family TV, and started gurgling.
“ALEXA…” he said, with the speech of a drunken underworld dwarf. “PLAY RICK ROLL…ON THE SOUNDTRACK.
It always asks Alexa to play songs”ON SOUNDTRACK.”
That’s when it happened. Thirty-five years after the song’s initial release (and 16 years after “Rickrolling” was first popularized online), my house was rocking to the sweet, sweet sound of Rick Astley’s Never Gonna Give You Up.
How did it happen? How did this 6 year old boy find out about Rick Astley and this song? The reasons were unclear.
So I asked him. Why? Why casually walked into our house and asked Alexa to play Never Gonna Give You Up?
I was quickly gutted.
“FATHER. Don’t you even know what a Rickroll is?”
As Principal Skinner once asked: Am I disconnected? Or are the kids wrong?
Parenting books will not help you. Nothing written or published in our time can prepare you for the hell of high-tech parenting. They can’t teach you how to deal with Roblox or Fortnite or the time your son/daughter “accidentally” used your credit card to spend $100 in Minecoins.
They will especially not talk to you about memes. But I know one thing: children to like memes.
I have two boys. A 6 year old and a 9 year old. Kids this age, for one reason or another, love memes.
But not like you or I like memes. No. They don’t consume memes like us, they don’t talk about memes like us. They don’t even think of themselves the same way. It’s strange.
Contrary to the “kids spend too much time in front of the screen” narrative, most young children are not attached to online culture like us adults. Due to screen time limits and intermittent online device access, they don’t scroll through Instagram stories or mindlessly flick through TikToks like teenagers.
No, they are exposed to old-school memes – on the playground.
Just like in the old days, where urban legends spread from older brother to savvy younger brother and beyond, kids are constantly proliferating pre-existing memes completely divorced from the context of their origins. They are consumed by osmosis, via a family member or a YouTube streamer, and then quickly co-opted. They quickly become part of a strange common language. Nonsense words that are simply shouted on the playing field but have no literal meaning.
This is why my 9 year old yells “SUCCULENT CHINESE MEAL” at totally inappropriate times. Why my 6 year old knows every word of Never Gonna Give You Up and finds it hilarious, even though he doesn’t really understand why this song has had such a massive impact on generations of people online forever.
I vividly remember driving my eldest son and a friend of his to an indoor trampoline center. Uninvited, a child rolled down my car window before shouting “MAH NAME JEFF” at random passers-by in the street. All the kids burst out laughing. I was in shock.
I guarantee that none of these kids watched 22 Jump Street and I also guarantee that none of them could choose Channing Tatum in a lineup if their life depended on it. So what happened? My guess: One day a cool kid said “MAH NAME JEFF” in the playground and everyone laughed. So everyone kept saying it. Again and again. Like a cooked Budweiser ad.
In some ways, that’s normal. Memes have permeated our wider culture to the point where you don’t have to understand their history to find them funny. There is a collective and shared understanding that “it’s funny”. Memes evolve. We apply their concepts to new, increasingly complex and implicitly fair situations. obtain this. We laugh collectively because it’s normal. Somehow it makes us laugh harder.
But kids take it to the next level. Now this shit don’t even need to be done meaning.
One day, I was having dinner with my children. We were laughing and joking and I started talking in a silly voice. I don’t remember a single thing I said or even the sound of the voice, but my kids were losing their minds so I continued. After a while, he got old. The laughter died down. That’s when my eldest son stopped and asked me very seriously.
“What meme was he from?”
When it comes to meme consumption, children are out of touch with time and space. They just don’t care. Old memes, new memes… there is no distinction between the two. Their world is the playground. Everything relevant in it is relevant to them as individuals and collectives. That’s it. Nothing else matters.
My 9 year old regularly comes home and says, “Hey Dad, see that cool new meme?” So, without an ounce of irony, ask me to Google “.”
But while children are cut off from trends and understand what’s new, they exist on the cutting edge. Their consumption of memes is a different, almost elevated experience. We just adopted the meme, they were born into it. Children exist in another plane dissociated from meaning. They simply shout out a word or phrase like a twisted incantation and have the desired effect on them like magic. EXPELLIARMUS! It’s almost admirable. Completely unpretentious.
How will this evolve? How will this translate when this cursed generation of children will have direct and free access to the internet through their own cell phones and laptops? It’s impossible to say. All bets are off. Only one thing is certain: we will be left behind. We will be mocked, ridiculed in group chats or TikToks or whatever will end up being their platform of choice. It’s the nature of things.
Whatever adults are doing now is wrong. Sorry Principal Skinner, those are just facts. Whatever they’re about to do, that’s the only way to go. Might as well get used to it. Might as well jump on board while there’s still time.
MAH NAME JEFF.