With the veritable explosion of technology and online platforms in recent decades, research is understandably catching up to the core truths about how our (comparatively un-evolved) brains and bodies interact with these almost parallel realities. One narrative has us at the mercy of insidious tech that erodes our willpower and enslaves us to our glowing blue screens. But new research involving twins and social media use is shedding light on a possible genetic component to our online habits — and, paradoxically, showing us how a lot of it can be modulated by choice.
The new study, authored by researchers at King’s College London, and published recently in the journal PLOS ONE analyzed online media use of 8500 teenage twins, both identical and fraternal. By comparing their behaviours and the amount of genes they shared (identical twins share all, and fraternal half), the researchers were able to determine how much of their online engagement was nature, and how much nurture. The (rather complicated!) equation is as follows:
“Heritability (A) is narrowly defined as the proportion of individual differences in a population that can be attributed to inherited DNA differences and is estimated by doubling the difference between [identical] and [fraternal] twin correlations. Environmental contribution to phenotypic variance is broadly defined as all non-inherited influences that are shared (C) and unique (E) to twins growing up in the same home. Shared environmental effects (C) are calculated by subtracting A from the [identical] twin correlation and contribute to similarities between siblings while non-shared environmental effects (E) are those experiences unique to members of a twin pair that do not contribute to twin similarity.”
The results found that a great deal of heritability was at play for all types of media consumption, including entertainment (37%); educational media (34%); gaming (39%); and social networking, particularly Facebook (24%). At the same time, environmental factors within families were the cause of two-thirds of the differences in siblings’ online habits. That indicates that while we are what our genes are, their in-world expression can be molded by free will. A heartening thought for a species buffeted by so much technological change!