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Do oxytocin receptor variants influence online activity? recep-bg/Getty Images
  • Oxytocin plays a role in the development of social bonds.
  • Some evidence suggests that variations in the gene that codes for the oxytocin receptor might account for interpersonal differences in some behaviors.
  • In a recent, small-scale study, researchers investigated the links between oxytocin receptors, adult attachment, and social media usage.
  • They found that people with a particular variant of the gene that codes for the oxytocin receptor tend to follow more people on Instagram.
  • However, the study is preliminary, and there are many limitations.

In a new preliminary study, the participants with a certain variant of a gene that produces oxytocin receptors tended to follow more people on Instagram.

The research appears in the journal Heliyon.

For the authors, the study lays the groundwork for future investigations to develop a better understanding of the relationship between the genetic and environmental factors affecting a person’s sociability, particularly in an online context.

Oxytocin is a hormone that plays a role in reproduction and also influences behavior. According to the Society for Endocrinology:

“[O]xytocin acts as a chemical messenger and has an important role in many human behaviors, including sexual arousal, recognition, trust, romantic attachment, and mother–infant bonding.”

Researchers have shown that oxytocin plays an important role in the way mammals socialize.

However, while oxytocin can promote prosocial behavior, its role depends on the context. In a review article in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology, researchers highlighted that in a safe environment, oxytocin might promote prosocial behavior, while in an unsafe environment, it may encourage more antisocial behavior.

Some evidence suggests that variations in the gene that codes for oxytocin receptors — OXTR — might also influence how oxytocin affects behavior. An older study found that one variant of the OXTR gene was associated with attachment security in some infants.

Another study found links between gene variants, or polymorphisms, of the OXTR gene and another gene that plays a role in oxytocin’s release into circulation. They were associated with “longer durations of parent-infant gaze synchrony” and “more touch toward their infant.”

Although a great many questions remain, research findings have also implicated OXTR polymorphisms in several conditions, including eating disorders, depression, and neurodevelopmental disorders.

In the present study, the researchers looked at the relationship between OXTR variants, adult attachment, and online socializing behavior.

In this context, “attachment” refers to an individual’s emotions and behaviors in close relationships. It encompasses, for instance, fear of rejection and desire for intimacy.

Earlier studies showed that certain OXTR polymorphisms were associated with sensitivity to social stress and an increased likelihood of seeking support when distressed.

This latest study takes things one step further. The authors wanted to understand how OXTR polymorphisms and attachment would influence online behavior.

Speaking with Medical News Today, the corresponding author of the study, Dr. Gianluca Esposito, said, “[c]onsidering the pivotal role that social networking sites, [like] Instagram, play in our daily lives, we conducted a multidisciplinary study to explore the mechanisms ruling online social interactions.”

Dr. Esposito works at the Department of Psychology and Cognitive Science at the University of Trento in Italy and the Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

To investigate, Dr. Esposito and his colleagues designed a small, preliminary study. They recruited 57 students enrolled at Nanyang Technological University. The participants were aged 30 years or younger and did not have a history of neurological, psychiatric, or genetic disorders. Importantly, they all had an Instagram account.

The researchers took a swab from inside each participant’s cheek to analyze their DNA.

They also asked the participants to fill out a questionnaire to determine each person’s attachment style toward those with whom they had a close relationship. For example, the questionnaire asked the participants how they felt about intimacy and closeness and whether they worried about their relationship or how their partner felt about them.

Finally, the researchers used software to analyze each participant’s Instagram account. The software counted the number of posts, how many people the participant followed, and how many people followed them.

The researchers hypothesized that the interaction between each participant’s OXTR polymorphism and their attachment style would affect the number of posts and the ratio of followers to people following them on Instagram.

The researchers found that the participants with the single-nucleotide polymorphism variant rs53576 and the AA genotype in the oxytocin receptor gene OXTR followed more people on Instagram compared with the participants with the G-allele.

This was the case no matter what the participants’ attachment style.

However, the researchers did not find any clear relationship between the OXTR polymorphism and attachment style, and there was no link between gene variants, attachment style, and Instagram sociability.

Speaking with MNT, Dr. Esposito said that “[t]he study revealed potential associations between Instagram behavior, genetic predispositions, and anxiety or avoidance experienced in close relationships.”

“For instance, the number of accounts that a person follows on Instagram may be linked to the user’s genotype in specific parts of the oxytocin receptor gene.”

“The results testify the significant contribution of the environmental and genetic components when examining human behavior on social media platforms.”

This study is only a preliminary investigation and, as such, has a number of limitations. Of course, the small number of participants all from the same university and the uneven sex ratio — 41 females and 16 males — are significant drawbacks.

The authors also note that measuring the activity on one social media platform ignores the wide range of platforms available.

Additionally, using questionnaires to self-report attachment leaves the door open for bias. Some people may answer dishonestly, while others might misremember or misinterpret their feelings.

As Dr. Esposito says, “The present results should be interpreted with a great degree of caution in the panorama of genetic association studies. This is a small initial investigation of the phenomenon and should be followed up in different countries, as well as in larger samples.”