If you know what ‘brainrot’ means, you might already have it


Online discussion of brainrot has recently grown so widespread that some social media users have begun creating parodies of people who seem to embody the condition. — Bloomberg

If you or someone you love speaks almost exclusively in Internet references – “It’s giving golden retriever boyfriend energy” or “Show it to me Rachel” – they may be suffering from a condition known as “brainrot”.

The term refers primarily to low-value Internet content and the effects caused by spending too much time consuming it. Example: “I’ve been watching so many TikToks, I have brainrot.”

Online discussion of brainrot has recently grown so widespread that some social media users have begun creating parodies of people who seem to embody the condition.

Several videos by the TikTok user Heidi Becker show her facing the camera as she strings together one Internet reference after another in rapid-fire fashion.

“Hiii, oh my god, the fit is fitting, pop off king!” she says at the start of a recent video that has over 220,000 likes.

Other lines in her soliloquy include: “It’s giving golden retriever energy,” a piece of slang describing someone who gives the impression of being friendly, goofy or harmless, and “I really like hot girl walking and I really like girl dinner,” references to daily activities that TikTok has gendered and renamed.

Accusing someone of having brainrot is not a compliment. But some people evince a hint of pride in admitting to the condition. A recent BuzzFeed quiz challenging readers on obscure Internet trivia was headlined, “If You Pass This Brain Rot Quiz, Your Brain Is 1000% Cooked.”

“One of the easiest ways to tell if someone’s brain has been destroyed by social media is to notice how often they reference Internet jargon,” influencer Joel Cave recently posted in a TikTok. “The fact that the Internet can infiltrate our brain so much that people don’t even have control over what they’re saying – they just have to spout out whatever meme they’ve been seeing a lot – is crazy to me.”

Some social media accounts are dedicated to creating “brainrot content”, which has become its own entertainment subgenre. TikTok user Fort History takes clips of movies and TV shows and dubs them with the latest Internet lingo.

“Hey, Rizzler, it’s just you and me today,” Phil from the sitcom Modern Family appears to say to his son, Luke, in one clip.

“All right I’ll edge right down,” Luke responds.

Taylor Lorenz, the author of Extremely Online: The Untold Story Of Fame, Influence, And Power On The Internet, said she saw “brainrot” as synonymous with the phrase “broken brain”. Both online terms apply to those who have become so warped by what they see on the Internet “that they have lost the ability to function in the physical world”, said Lorenz, a Washington Post columnist who was previously a reporter for The New York Times.

A badge of honour?

The term “brainrot”, which appeared online as early as 2007, is meant to be playful. But its rise in popularity relates to growing recognition of a disorder that researchers at Boston Children’s Hospital have called Problematic Interactive Media Use.

Dr Michael Rich, a paediatrician who founded the Digital Wellness Lab at the hospital, said that his patients referred to brainrot as “a way of describing what happens when you spend a lot of your time online, and you have shifted your awareness over to the online space as opposed to IRL, and are filtering everything through the lens of what has been posted and what can be posted”.

Rich added that many of his patients seemed to consider having brainrot a badge of honour. Some even compete for the most screen time in the same way they do for high scores in video games. They joke about it, self-aware enough to understand that obsessive Internet usage affects them, but not enough to stop it.

“Even though they’re experiencing brainrot, they don’t use that as motivation to get away from it,” Rich said.

Joshua Rodriguez Ortiz, an 18-year-old high school senior in Billerica, Massachusetts, said that he had heard the term pop up increasingly over the past two months.

“I think people started realising that TikTok is so consuming over our lives that it just felt like brainrot, because people are scrolling on TikTok constantly, and there’s so many niche references from TikTok,” he said.

He cited a recent viral video titled “The Tik Tok Rizz Party”, which showed a group of teenagers dancing to Kanye West at a Sweet 16 party.

Rodriguez Ortiz, a student adviser in Rich’s Digital Wellness Lab, helps the adults working to treat Problematic Interactive Media Use understand how young people use digital technology. Even though he is a star student (he’ll be going to Harvard next year), he said that even he had trouble limiting his phone usage.

“I would just be scrolling on TikTok or Instagram and procrastinating on my homework, and I had no self-control,” he said. “I was staying up later than I needed to, and I was like, ‘I need to find a way to stop this’.”

He said he now set restrictions on his phone that allowed him access to his most-used apps – Instagram and TikTok – for only 15 minutes at a time.

‘Self-soothing’

While the Digital Wellness Lab seeks to understand social media usage and create healthful standards for it, other groups are taking a more punitive approach. Newport Institute, a young-adult mental health inpatient treatment center, has recently begun recruiting people suffering from “brainrot”. On its website, the institute encourages parents whose children suffer from “screen dependency” and “digital addiction” to consider treatment plans at one of its locations across the country.

For Rich and the experts at the Boston Children’s Digital Wellness Lab, “brainrot” isn’t as much an addiction to the Internet as it is a coping mechanism for people who may have other underlying disorders that may lead them to numb themselves with mindless scrolling or overlong gaming sessions.

“The Internet and gaming is being used by kids who have ADHD, for example, who spent their day in school, feeling like they can’t keep up, they can’t follow what’s going on, not just in the classroom, but even in the playground,” Rich said.

“They come home, and they sit down in front of World Of Warcraft or Call Of Duty or Fortnight, and they’re really good at it,” he continued. “They’re really good, because distractibility is a relative strength in that environment. And so it’s a place of self-soothing, of feeling the mastery that they don’t feel in other aspects of their lives.”

Rich’s goal is to reframe the debate about Internet and phone usage from “good vs. bad” to “healthy vs. less healthy” in an effort to help parents and children develop better online habits.

“Villainising your phone and social media just simply is not realistic in this day and age,” said Leena Mathai, a senior in high school in Basking Ridge, New Jersey, who is also a Digital Wellness Lab’s student adviser. “Telling kids, ‘Oh, you’re better off without your phone,’ or trying to make them feel bad for wanting to use their phone isn’t the best way to go about the situation, because all that does is just make people want to do it more.”

“We use our phones to numb ourselves,” she added. “I know that’s so wrong and people are always taken aback by that comment, but it’s so true.” – The New York Times

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