One of the factors that might influence the differences found in children’s consumption of violent television programs and videogames is DNA.
This is precisely the suggestion offered by a survey entitled Media Violence and Children’s ADHD-Related Behaviors: A Genetic Susceptibility Perspective, recently published in the “Journal of Communication”.
It’s conclusion is based on the association of a gene-variant involved in the regulation of serotonin with the excessive use of violent media. The study was led by Sanne Nikkelen, Patti Valkenburg, and Helen Vossen, researchers at the Amsterdam School of Communication Research (ASCoR), in collaboration with the Erasmus University Medical Center.
The analysis falls under the category of research concerning the relationship between the media and ADHD, and aims at investigating the role of genetic susceptibility in this area.
The Study – The study involved 1,612 Dutch children between the ages of 5 and 9 from the subsample “Generation R Study.” A prospective cohort study promoted by the Erasmus MC, it sought the early detection of genetic and environmental factors capable of influencing the development and health of children and adolescents. Examining data on DNA drawn at birth from umbilical cords, as well as information about habits and behavior provided by parents and caregivers, the Dutch researchers were able to test their initial hypotheses. They started with the assumption that genetic factors play a role both in the choice of violent media among children and in their reactions to the media’s content, proposing these factors as a possible cause for the individual differences that were recorded. As a background to everything stands another ASCoR study called The Differential Susceptibility to Media Effects Model,in which babies who used television and videogames tend to seek content that is in harmony with their emotional, cognitive, behavioral, and attitudinal assets, in this way exposing themselves in a greater way to the media’s effects.
ADHD – The exploration was carried out based on the link between the media and ADHD, an international acronym which stands for Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder. A complicated behavioral syndrome with an early onset, it is now among the most debated diagnoses in the neuropsychiatric field due to the doubts raised about its nosographric consistency. Since conclusive evidence about its etiopathogenesis is yet to be found, the most recent hypotheses opt for a multi-factored interpretation of the phenomenon. Its cause could be a mixture of psychological and neurobiological factors, with a particular emphasis on one’s genetic blueprint, from which individual susceptibility flows. On the basis of guidelines in the DSM diagnostic manual, the most famous classification of mental illness in the world, the illness is characterized by pervasive and persistent levels of inattention, hyperactivity and impulsiveness, and affects the sphere of self-control and the capacity to plan. Symptoms are present in varying proportions, and can affect the overall development of those afflicted, with reflections of this fact in their daily life. Different studies have linked ADHD to aspects of media entertainment, hypothesizing that content marked by violence could in fact adversely influence the mental conditions of young children by favoring the onset of disease-related traits. Yet, why do some show a markedly increased propensity for TV and videogames that convey aggression, arrogance, and brutality? On what grounds is it possible to predict a child’s susceptibility to media violence and therefore that media’s behavioral impact?
Genes – The researchers confronted their question by starting with the most recent scientific findings within the topic of inheritance, which hypothesize that genetically controlled factors play a role in determining the consumption of media, as well as in the evolutionary dynamics of ADHD. They believe that there are multiple genetic factors linked with these behaviors, and that they above all concern polymorphisms, or gene mutations. Appearing with varying frequency in a given population, these mutations adversely affect the genes’ transcription and translation mechanisms, that is, it changes the function of the protein encoded by them. This can happen to such an extent that the mutations even affect gene expression. The Dutch scientists focused their attention on specific gene variants, hoping to correlate them with the environment.
5-HTTLPR – The researchers’ lens stopped over a variant of 5-HTT. This is the gene coding for the transporter of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that carries out an important role in the regulation of emotions and impulses. The region under observation is most commonly known as 5-HTTLPR, and is addressed in several studies of ADHD. Although its role is not yet fully understood, it is hypothesized that in its long form (allele L) it contributes to the moderation of the effects of psychosocial stress, beginning with the stress children experience in their home environment. They also focused on a variant of DRD4, a receptor that regulates the transmission of dopamine, the neurotransmitter studied specifically in ADHD research, along with norepinephrine and serotonin. Dopamine is defined by 7-Repeat, an allelic configuration that scientific literature relates to behavior known as novelty seeking.
DNA: Key to Diversity? – In contrast with the genetic variant DRD4-R7–which has not been proven to hold any significant correlations–the tests have in fact shown an association between the long version of the genotype 5-HTTLPR and an increased exposure to violent media. This suggests, at least in part, that young children’s use of this media might be conditioned by DNA, and therefore that the variability between individuals could be similarly attributed to the influence of genetic factors. Along with the influence of our environment which shapes all of us in our first years of life, this DNA is inherited from our parents together with their genes and all possible active and passive characteristics they entail in terms of genetic conditioning.
Media and ADHD – Surprisingly, the survey did not confirm findings from previous studies that held a direct connection between behavior related to ADHD and the L allele of the 5-HTTLPR polymorphism. Scholars say that the different results could be attributed to the different methods of sampling that were used. What has been confirmed, however, is the correlation between the use of violent media and behavior associated with ADHD: children with a greater exposure to media violence exhibited more symptoms. The study’s limited power of analysis did not allow any further inferences on the nature of this relationship, the intensity of which did not seem to change among children due to the presence of the 5-HTTLPR genotype. How should this complex data be interpreted? According to what was observed in the sample, genetic variants only have an indirect influence on behavior associated with hyper deficit attention disorder/hyperactivity, through exposure to violent media. This suggests that the consumption of such contents may act as a link between genetic susceptibility and ADHD, which facilitates the surfacing of traits related to the illness. These are of course–as the Dutch researchers themselves indicate in their conclusions–initial conjectures which must be confirmed through further analyses that are capable of favoring a clearer understanding of the phenomenon.
Nature vs. Nurture – Woven into this study in all its complexity is the eternal debate between nature and culture, a question that throughout history has impassioned many different disciplines, to the point of frequently assuming extreme and heated positions. What counts more: that which is written in our genes or rather what we learn through life experience? How much of our behavior is reducible to DNA, and how much to the environment? Putting the puzzle pieces together, Sanne Nikkelen and her colleagues offered new arguments to those who envision a media effects research that is open to contributions from disciplines that are undergoing extraordinary growth such as genetics and neuroscience. The results described by the Dutch scientists shift away from the temptation to use a deterministic biological mold. They urge, in light of human behavior’s proven complexity, that greater attention be given to individual susceptibility factors, in the awareness that, above all, every genetic asset implies a norm of reaction, or a whole range of possible phenotypic developments based on interaction with the environment.
Bringing everything back to our analytic purpose, we would be led astray by thinking that the invasion of old and new media technology–epiphenomena that are particularly significant in our current socio-cultural organization–are fully responsible for the explosion of ADHD in children. And yet–excessive medicalization apart–the complexity of this pathology demands a thorough evaluation of the media which is present in children’s daily life like never before, so much so, that it can also deeply affect their harmonious development. The question is far from obvious. Given that TV and videogames virulent contents, in the light of these studies, appear capable of exacerbating individual behavioral traits, it remains to understand what kind of connection concretely exists between violent media and ADHD. Does excessive exposure to this form of entertainment favor the appearance of such symptoms? Or rather, does genetic susceptibility to this illness incline children to a greater use of such media? Thanks to the contributions of pioneering studies like the one examined here, the answers will most likely come in the future from prospective, ad hoc analyses with a professed multidisciplinary vocation.