What is ‘popcorn brain?’: How social media could impact your focus

Do you ever find yourself struggling to focus on a single task or thought? If so, you may have what is referred to as ‘popcorn brain.’ 

And, the term is not new. 

Popcorn brain’ was coined in 2011 by researcher David Levy and refers to a person’s attention quickly jumping from thought to thought, like the kernels inside a popcorn bag.

The University of California at Irvine found that in 2003, the average attention span was two minutes and 30 seconds. In 2012, this decreased to 75 seconds, and in recent years it’s dropped to 45 seconds.

Social media may be major culprit

And social media may be a contributing factor, as many Americans struggle to pull away from their smart devices or concentrate on a single task. 


File: Popcorn in a bowl. (Credit: LOIC VENANCE/AFP via Getty Images)

"A lot of people don’t know when to quit," a New York resident told FOX 5 NY. 

Dr. Kamil Atta, a psychiatrist at Plainview Hospital, compared ‘popcorn brain’ and social media to a food addiction. 

"The experience is extremely addictive, more addictive than any other activity because you have these small amounts of dopamine being stimulated on a very frequent basis, and to stop the pattern is extremely difficult," Atta told FOX. 

He added: "Each time the stimulus length shortens, the more distracted we get."

How to ease ‘popcorn brain’

Mental health experts say there are ways to combat the phenomenon as our lives become more digital.

Atta suggests finding a healthy balance with social media is key. He recommends easing off social media by limiting your use of your devices rather than stopping cold turkey. Experts also said you can participate in other screen-free activities including exercising, reading, meditating and hiking. 

Experts also noted that it’s important to try to focus on a single activity to train your brain not to multitask all the time.

Last year, the U.S. surgeon general warned that there was not enough evidence to show that social media was safe for children and teens — and was calling on tech companies, parents and caregivers to take "immediate action to protect kids." 

Dr. Vivek Murthy asked tech companies to share data and increase transparency with researchers and the public and prioritize users' health and safety when designing their products.

RELATED: Surgeon general warns social media can have 'profound risk of harm' for kids

"I recognize technology companies have taken steps to try to make their platforms healthier and safer, but it’s simply not enough," Murthy told The Associated Press in an interview.

 "You can just look at the age requirements, where platforms have said 13 is the age at which people can start using their platforms. Yet 40% of kids 8 through 12 are on social media. How does that happen if you’re actually enforcing your policies?"

According to a study cited in the surgeon general's report, frequent social media use may be associated with "distinct changes" in the developing brain, and could increase sensitivity to social rewards and punishments.