Are You a Facebook Fanatic? It Might Be in Your Genes


Are you addicted to social media? If so, your need to screen might not be your fault. A study says that some people are genetically programmed to be overly drawn to social media.

Credit: Michael Coghlan/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

By examining the internet habits of twins, researchers at King’s College London found that genes were responsible for up to 39 percent of their time spent online. These findings suggest that media is not just an alluring, overstimulating entity that lures and traps consumers — there are people who naturally crave it.

“The key component of this gene-environment correlation is choice,” said Professor Robert Plomin, the senior author of the study from the Institute of Psychiatry, Psychology and Neuroscience (IoPPN) at King’s College London. “Such that individuals are not simply passive recipients of their environment but instead actively select their experiences and these selections are correlated with their genetic propensities.”

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Published in PLOS ONE, the study analyzed online media use in more than 8,500 16-year-old twins from the Twins Early Development Study (TEDS). When breaking down the study participants, they compared 4,250 identical twins who shared 100 percent of their genes, to 4,250 non-identical twins who shared 50 percent of their genes. Researchers were able to estimate the contribution of genes and environment on the participants’ differences in how they engaged in a wide variety of online media. This included entertainment and educational games, plus Facebook, and included time spent in chat rooms and instant messenger platforms.

Researchers then measured the heritability in all the study participants. Heritability is the degree that differences between children can be attributed to inherited genetic factors — over the effects of their environment.

They found that heritability was responsible for a significant amount of time participants spent on all media, including 37 percent of time on entertainment media, 34 percent of educational media, 39 percent of online gaming and 24 percent of social networking.

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Unique environment factors accounted for two-thirds of the differences between people in online media use. This might include a family where one sibling has a personal mobile phone and the other doesn’t, or parents who closely monitor the social network activity of one sibling more heavily than the other.

Overall, the findings challenge the idea that people are just passively influenced by media, and they support the notion that people adjust and tailor their online usage based on a unique biological and genetic need.

“Our findings contradict popular media effects theories, which typically view the media as an external entity that has some effect — either good or bad — on ‘helpless’ consumers,” said first study author Ziada Ayorech, also from the IoPPN at King’s College London. “Finding that DNA differences substantially influence how individuals interact with the media puts the consumer in the driver’s seat, selecting and modifying their media exposure according to their needs.”