EAGER: A Biocultural Study of the Functional Genomics of Intensive Internet Use
National Science Foundation BCE #: 1600448, awarded Nov. 16, 2015
This project, directed by Dr. Jeffrey Snodgrass of Colorado State University and Dr. Henri Dengah of Utah State University, will investigate effects of intensive internet activity on mental and physical health. People around the globe spend increasing amounts of time online, sometimes in alternative “virtual worlds” where they learn a common culture and come to share beliefs and practices. Online communities may become so important to participants that they eclipse offline social commitments. The researchers wish to investigate the possibility that such “internet addiction,” characterized by excessive or poorly controlled behaviors, preoccupations, and urges regarding computer use and internet access, leads to psychological distress or impairment and that this is discernible not only in behavior but also in the genome. Previous scientific research on internet addiction has focused on human neurobiology, giving little attention to sociocultural and environmental factors. In contrast, the present research will combine cross-cultural anthropological methods with methods from functional genomics to examine whether cultural learning and social involvement (in virtual worlds or elsewhere) can reach deep down to shape fundamental health processes. Findings from this research will complement neurobiological approaches and contribute critical information to public debates about addictive behaviors, a pressing public health and social problem.
The researchers will combine cultural consonance, social network, and functional genomic analysis to examine how online environments become embodied in the minds and bodies of internet users. They will focus on young adults (18-32 years of age), a group known to be active virtual world participants and susceptible to addictive behaviors. In the first phase of the study, researchers will collect dried blood spot data to assess whether intensive internet use, as measured by responses to an earlier online survey, is associated with altered functional genomes, and if their gene expression profiles mirror profiles of other psycho-socially distressed populations. The blood spots will be analyzed via microarrays of RNA up/down transcription regulation in leukocytes. This will provide insight into the biological reality of internet-related stress and addiction processes previously documented culturally and psychologically via ethnographic methods and informant self-reports. In the second phase, the researchers will expand the context of this investigation to Brazil and India to explore whether culture-specific offline norms and practices might shape problem internet use patterns in ways that impact individual users’ mental and physical health. Together, these two phases combine to produce a radically interdisciplinary, innovative, and potentially transformative approach to understanding the appeal and effects of online virtual worlds, problematic internet use, and health differences. The research will produce a deeper understanding of how sociocultural and biological processes combine in thesetechnological contexts to shape human health and well-being. This exploratory project will also set the stage for future collaborative research between social scientists and molecular biologists to answer basic questions about how culturally mediated worlds become literally embodied.