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Terminally online: If you know what ‘brainrot’ means, you 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.

Terminally online: If you know what ‘brainrot’ means, you already have it
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Jessica Roy

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 200,000 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 brainrot 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,” the 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. The 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 sees “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 Ms. Lorenz, a Washington Post columnist who was previously a reporter for The New York Times.

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.

Michael Rich, a paediatrician who founded the Digital Wellness Lab at the hospital, said that his patients refer 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.”

Dr. Rich added that many of his patients seem 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,” Dr. Rich said.

NYT Editorial Board
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