Always sending memes to your loved ones? It's called 'pebbling.' Here's why experts say the trend has its pros and cons.

A woman using her smartphone
Is pebbling ever a problem? Experts break down the digital communication trend. (Getty Images)

You may not be familiar with the term “pebbling,” but if you’re a human with social media, you’ve experienced it. Pebbling is the social phenomenon of sending people memes, videos or links to show you’re thinking of them. A funny cat video, a recipe, an article you simply have to share ... if you’re DMing it to your pal or partner, you’re pebbling.

The term itself comes from what the Gentoo penguins of Antarctica do to build bonds with a potential partner: They bring them a carefully collected set of pebbles, one at a time. Then, if the other penguin is sufficiently wooed, they’ll use those pebbles to build a nest — and a beautiful life! — together.

We humans have been “pebbling” our friends and crushes for centuries: sending postcards home, picking a flower for a sweetheart, buying little trinkets "just because." These days, though, the term has swept social media for its specific digital usage.

But why do we turn to these behaviors? And when does pebbling become too much — or too little? Here’s what mental health professions have to say about the perks and pitfalls of pebbling.

“In the digital age, small gestures like sharing a meme or a video can significantly strengthen emotional bonds,” therapist Natalie Rosado tells Yahoo Life. “These tokens of affection serve as a constant reminder that someone cares." In fact, a 2023 study published in First Monday found that meme-sharing plays a meaningful role in close relationships — and that sharing funny memes in particular was positively associated with study participants’ relational satisfaction levels.

Psychotherapist Jessica Hunt adds that pebbling is also a generation-gap bridge on social media. “While it's definitely more of a Gen X and younger thing … the boomer generation is increasingly engaging in pebbling as they become more comfortable with the technology, using it to stay connected with loved ones,” she says. “It's not that far off from forwarding that email full of jokes I used to get from my grandfather almost weekly.” In this way, pebbling is not so much about the type of content shared but the sharing itself.

According to mental health counselor Shainna Ali, although today’s pebbling occurs in a variety of forms, what’s consistent is that it says, I'm thinking about you. “From a relational perspective, many can find value in this connection,” she tells Yahoo Life. “It can deepen communication and validation.”

Here are some other reasons why people of all stages of life are turning to this type of communication:

It’s efficient. Many who feel intimidated by picking up the phone to call a faraway friend may instead turn to pebbling to say, “Hi, I love you” simply because it takes two seconds. Therapist Mariam Hager tells Yahoo Life that for many of her clients, pebbling is “all they can manage with the busy lives they lead.”

It’s low-risk. Therapist Rachel Goldberg tells Yahoo Life that pebbling is increasingly being used for much more than those joke emails of old. In addition to sharing positive or funny content, pebbling can also help us approach more negative emotions in a low-risk, less confrontational way and “express feelings that may be challenging to articulate directly,” she says.

It makes an emotional impact. These small digital tokens can brighten someone’s day and even reduce feelings of loneliness or stress, says Rosado. “Knowing that someone took the time to share something tailored to their interests or sense of humor is validating and comforting,” she explains.

It’s accessible and inclusive. Pebbling can have a big impact even though it requires much less effort than the traditional love languages (such as gift-giving or acts of service). Plus, Rosado explains, it “transcends geographical boundaries and time zones, making it a universally accessible way to show affection.”

Pebbling is no replacement for crucial relationship building blocks, such as face-to-face conversations and physical touch. If you constantly find yourself reaching for a meme as a method of avoiding those conversations and connections, it’s time for a pebbling reality check.

"While pebbles can pile together to have an impact, they are not replaceable for essential communication,” Ali says. She explains that in deeper relationships, especially in times of conflict, your loved one may view your pebbling “as being avoidant or dismissive of the present issues.”

But rather than judging a propensity for pebbling as superficial or stupid, Hager reminds clients “that if they notice themselves feeling disconnected, they can engage in various ways with their loved ones, bringing choice and agency back into the communication equation.”

That doesn’t mean there’s no place for pebbling. “It’s not an either/or thing,” says Hunt. “Both forms of communication have their place.”

So yes, you should carve out time for the deeper conversations. But when you’re drowning in the demands of a busy life, you can still find a moment to share that TikTok you know will make your old college roommate laugh. That’s just the beauty of pebbling.