Last week a German study at the University of Bonn revealed a genetic variation “essential” to the formation of internet addiction therapies. This gene, CHRNA4, is also linked to nicotine addiction and the nicotinic acetylcholine receptors associated with the brain’s reward pathways. Now researchers claim that many people are genetically predisposed to Internet addiction, and news sources everywhere are buying it.Then a skeptical journalist from The Atlantic paid the $50 fee and downloaded the full study from The Journal of Addiction where he could access the statistics that no one else bothered to check. And what he found didn’t really match the grandiose claims being made in the study’s press release.
The official statement released by the study’s director Dr. Christian Montag on August 29 briefly describes the study, but provides no statistical data of the results. We know that of the 843 people interviewed, 132 demonstrated problematic behavior characteristic of Internet addiction. Compared to a control group, these people had a higher prevalence of the CHRNA4 genetic variation.
But this article from The Atlantic brings up an important point: the public press release does not identify those prevalence rates. Upon further investigation, only 27 percent of proclaimed Internet addicts had the gene, along with 17 percent of non-addicts. These figures seem relatively insignificant, considering only about 1 in 4 people have the predisposing variant, while 1 in 5 do not.
As soon as genetics are mentioned, things get confusing; to clarify, these researchers aren’t claiming we’ve developed or inherited a genetic mutation as a result of our compulsive Internet use. Instead, people with this CHRNA4 genetic variant are more prone to Internet addiction, and perhaps other addictive tendencies as well. So the foundational theory behind the study makes sense, but again, do these statistics really tell us anything about Internet addiction?
In response to the study’s claim that they’ve “nailed down the gene responsible for Internet addiction,” The Atlantic says, “Is it true? No, but its falseness is interesting for what it says both about the nature of our addictions and about how scientific researchers sometimes help journalists sensationalize research.” Internet addiction therapies are in the future.
That statement may be a bit harsh, but this study definitely requires replication and more significant figures to be taken seriously. Dr. Montag insists their data shows “clear indications for genetic causes of Internet addiction,” but looking at the prevalence rates, this experiment hardly seems the breakthrough news headlines are making it out to be.
The hope is to develop new Internet addiction therapies as a result of these findings, but without adequate support of its biological basis, we may just be getting ahead of ourselves.