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Are you suffering from “Popcorn Brain”?

By Sarah Klein

I recently had the opportunity to attend a conference on social media, a gathering of like-minded tech-fiends, to share experiences and learn new strategies.

As you might expect, most of the people in attendance were what you could call “heavy” social media users, so while some of the pioneers of social media were giving their brilliant and well-crafted presentations, the users in attendance were busily tweeting, Facebooking, and Tumblelogging away.

Typically when we are listening—whether it’s during a face-to-face conversation, a lecture to hundreds, or even a concert played before thousands—we put away, turn off, and ignore distractions.

Many of us come from a place where being on your phone when you should be listening is the ultimate blow-off, a sure-fire way to show you’re not listening and you don’t care to.

At a social media conference, the behavior may not be considered rude, but I still couldn’t help but wonder how the presenters felt. On the one hand, hundreds of listeners were helping to broadcast their messages over their personal social webs. But on the other hand, all of those users were listening to the presentations specifically for the 140-characters-or-less sound bites they planned to send out to the masses. Did the presenters feel proud—or ignored?

More and more research is being published on what our constant need to be connected is doing to our relationships and, perhaps more importantly, to our brains. As The Online Mom has written before, the research suggests that we aren’t as good at multitasking as we might think. In fact, self-identified multitaskers actually have a harder time juggling multiple tasks.

As recently reported by CNN, our busy, gadget-dependent lives may actually be rewiring our brains. David Levy, a professor with the Information School at the University of Washington, calls the effect “popcorn brain,” which CNN defined as “a brain so accustomed to the constant stimulation of electronic multitasking that we’re unfit for life offline, where things pop at a much slower pace.”

We crave instant gratification, which floods the brain with feel-good chemicals, stimulating us to repeat the behavior that made us feel good in the first place. A recent study of college students who spent around 10 hours a day online found that over time, this could result in a shrinking of gray matter, the part of the brain that does our, well, thinking!

But how do we know where to draw the line between acceptable connectedness and spending too much time online? Should we be live-tweeting social media conferences, or are the constant updates just distractions? The biggest fans of technology are sure to argue that they don’t see a problem. But if you can’t resist picking up your BlackBerry on your vacation or feel drawn to check Twitter during a family meal, you may want to think again.

Is our constant need to be connected affecting our ability to accomplish regular day-to-day tasks? Share your thoughts with The Online Mom!

Comment by June, posted 8/15/2011, 3:02 PM:

I'm a teacher interested in developing lesson plans in reading and literacy that work in educating high school students, many of whom can't focus because of their addiction to technology and the ultimate result, "popcorn brain." Any ideas?

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