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Genes affect online behaviour

News, 25 January 2017
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LONDON: Marketers and publishers have yet another variable to consider as academic research suggests that genes may play a significant role in how people engage with online media alongside environmental factors.

A study of online media use in 8,500 teenage twins, published in the journal PLOS ONE, compared identical twins (who share 100% of their genes) and non-identical twins (who share 50%) in order to estimate the relative contribution of genes and environment on individual differences in engagement with a range of online media, including games for entertainment and education, as well as time spent on chat rooms, instant messaging platforms and Facebook.

"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," stated Ziada Ayorec, one of the five authors of the paper, Personalized Media: A Genetically Informative Investigation of Individual Differences in Online Media Use.

More specifically, heritability – the degree to which differences between people can be attributed to inherited genetic factors rather than the effects of their environment – was found to be substantial for time spent on all types of media, ranging from 34% for educational sites to 37% for entertainment sites and 39% for gaming.

Genes also accounted for 24% of the variance in Facebook use.

"Although you would expect some genetic influence on online media use, as for any psychological trait, these are large effects — much larger than the sex differences between media use in girls and boys," Ayorec said.

"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," she added.

While genes are fixed, heritability scores can change with environment, the researchers noted.

"We predict that future studies will find even greater heritability estimates, as online media continue to permeate our environment and as media use is tailored even more to our personal needs and interests," they said.

"As environmental differences in access and availability diminish, our data suggest that differences in online media use would increasingly reflect differences in genetic propensities."

Data sourced from King's College London, Financial Times; additional content by Warc staff

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