How ‘popcorn brain’ is eating away at our attention spans

‘Popcorn brain’ describes our difficulty in concentrating due to excessive exposure to screens and fast, fragmented digital content. — AFP Relaxnews

Have you ever heard of the “popcorn brain”? Behind this amusing term lies a worrying reality: our brain’s increasing difficulty in concentrating on a single task due to excessive exposure to screens.

With the advent of digital technology, our brains are under severe strain. Constantly solicited by a multitude of stimuli, the brain sometimes struggles to keep up with the frenetic pace imposed by screen-based technology. And it’s in this context that the term “popcorn brain” was coined.

“Popcorn brain” describes our brain’s tendency to jump from one piece of information to another, without ever settling on a single thing. Like popcorn kernels bursting in all directions, our attention becomes scattered, making it increasingly difficult to concentrate.

This phenomenon appears to be mainly linked to our daily exposure to screens. According to the latest edition of the Ipsos Junior Connect study, surveying over 4,000 children and teenagers in France, young French people (aged 13-19) own an average of three personal screen-based devices. The under-6s even spend six hours a week online, watching videos, chatting with friends and family, listening to music or playing video games. The 7-12 age group spends nine hours a week online, while the 13+ group spends almost 18 hours a week online.

According to the latest Digital Report 2024 from We Are Social and Meltwater, the typical Internet user spends an average of six hours and 40 minutes online every day, three minutes more than a year ago.

47-second attention span

This overexposure to screens can have harmful consequences on our attention spans. A Japanese study, published in 2023 in the journal JAMA Pediatrics, and conducted on 7,097 children, established a link between screen time at age one and developmental delays – particularly in the areas of communication, gross and fine motor skills, problem-solving and personal and social skills – at ages two and four.

So how can this phenomenon be explained? According to Gloria Mark, professor emerita of informatics at the University of California, Irvine, our brains are constantly on the lookout for rewards. And screens, with their notifications, colorful images and varied content, are an inexhaustible source of gratification. The result: our brains become addicted to this constant stimulation and find it hard to be satisfied with a less stimulating activity.

“I call these attention traps because they’re engaging, rewarding ... and very easy to fall into! We find when people go on TikTok and find a hilarious video they want to stay there because they’re looking for that next hilarious video. And that’s a lot more rewarding than doing housework or whatever you need to be doing. That’s the trap,” she explains in an article posted by the University of California.

Over the past few decades, this over-stimulation has led to a decline in our attention spans and concentration. “My first paper on this subject was published in 2004 from a study conducted in 2003. We found attention spans on screens to average two-and-a-half minutes,” the expert continues. “Taking all (studies on the subject) together from 2016 till 2020, right before the pandemic started, that average comes to 47 seconds, a very clear difference.”

Parents are well aware of the potential problem. In fact, 70% of French parents of children up to the age of six believe that the use of screens has a major impact on their children’s development, according to an Ifop survey conducted in February 2024 for the Fondation pour l’enfance. – AFP Relaxnews

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