Part Three: Sharing Jokes and Memes to Be Edgy

By: Western States Center Staff

(photo Karolina Grabowska from Pexels)

Adolescents naturally test boundaries, take risks, and push against familial and cultural norms. Far-right leaders know this and leverage teens’ desire to be edgy or transgressive by creating sarcastic and ironic content they are more likely to share. When kids are at this level of online engagement, their intent is rarely to cause harm, but rather to push limits around social taboos or to experiment with going against their family’s values and establishing themselves as unique and independent.

Teens need enough room to move through this natural developmental process, but that doesn’t mean supportive adult connections and guidance can’t be influential. The balancing act is providing the space for young people to explore and express their views while also helping them understand, recognize, and avoid the danger of bigoted and far-right influences.


  • A child appears at breakfast one morning wearing a T-shirt that reads “White Flour” with an image of the Pillsbury Doughboy doing a Nazi salute.
  • A teen posts a picture of herself flashing an upside-down “A-ok” hand sign (a white power signal).
  • At a sleepover, guardians discover their child and his friends playing a coin-toss game with cups positioned in the shape of a Swastika on one end and a Star of David on the other.
  • A father overhears his son’s peers complaining that “feminazis” ruined an online game he used to play.
  • A young relative inserts an off-hand comment into a conversation about people from a targeted group, saying, “Those people just want attention.”
  • A daughter excuses her boyfriend’s offensive comments, saying he was just joking and likes to be provocative to get a reaction.

Suggested Approaches

Be Vigilant

Watch for evidence of pushing against family values. Ask:

  • I wonder why you’d say that?
  • I wonder how I’d feel if you treated me like that?

Check out their phone-lock picture, background picture, online avatar, etc. If you notice an image, symbol, or figure with alt-light, alt-right, white nationalist, or misogynistic significance, ask:

  • I noticed ___. Tell more about what that means to you.
  • I wonder how it makes other people feel to see that?

Learn who they follow on social media. Ask:

  • Why do you follow that account? What do you like about it?
  • Who else follows this?

Ask about phone nicknames, social media usernames, or other screen names used by peers. Ask:

  • Why do you use that name? What does it mean?
  • Why do you call them that? Tell me more….

Pre-empt accusations of being “too sensitive” or a “snowflake” often leveraged by people who post sarcastic memes. Wonder aloud:

  • Who might be hurt by this?
  • Why might they be hurt?
  • Why is it important to be sensitive to someone else’s feelings?
  • Isn’t it interesting that they seem sensitive about people being sensitive? I wonder why?

Engage Without Shaming

Respond with interest.

  • I’m curious what that means. Can you explain it to me?
  • Why did you choose this word/T-shirt/game, etc.?
  • How do you want people to react?
  • Are you curious about my reaction?

Articulate values of care and inclusiveness while posing empathetic questions:

  • Where did you first learn about this?
  • How familiar are you with the symbols here? What do you think they mean?
  • Of all the things you could choose, why choose this one? What is the goal?
  • Do you care if it offends people? Why or why not?

Take it seriously. They may be more influenced than you think by access to extremist content.

  • I want you to express yourself I want you to be safe.
  • Is this a line that’s OK to cross?
  • Are there aspects of this idea that you have questions about?
  • Where do we agree?

Avoid infantilizing adolescents. Allow for edginess and provocative interests that do not endanger them or others.

Support Action

Affirm digital literacy, critical thinking, and engagement.

  • I have no idea how this platform works. Can you show me?
  • I appreciate your openness in exploring this with me.

Work together to uncover the underlying messages and intentions.

  • What kind of manipulation is happening here?
  • What aspects of these ideas really appeal to you, and why? Are there aspects you still have questions about?
  • What do you think the goal of this video is?
  • How can you talk to your friends about why this goes too far?

What Not To do

  • Don’t underreact. Take potential extremist influence seriously. Identify and challenge the influence before it becomes a solidified part of a teen’s identity.
  • Don’t overreact. Adolescence is a time of significant change. Engaged listening can allow teens to remain connected to you, even as they negotiate boundaries.

Based in the Pacific Northwest and Mountain States, Western States Center works nationwide to strengthen inclusive democracy.