"German scientists find 'internet-addiction gene'," said a headline on a German news site last week. Another site reported that scientists have "nailed down the gene responsible for internet addiction."
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.
Here's what the German scientists found: People who reported heavy dependence on the internet--including feelings of unhappiness when denied access to it--were more likely to have a certain gene than comparable people who weren't so internet-dependent.
One thing that would be nice to know, before we decide how excited to get about this result, is: How much more likely? Do 90 percent of internet addicts have this gene whereas only 15 percent of non-addicts have it? Or is the difference much less dramatic than that?
So far as I can tell, not one of the journalists who wrote about this--not even the one whose story appeared on the estimable Washington Post's web site--found the answer to that question before writing about this research. And, in their defense, the answer wasn't trivially easy to find. The German scientists didn't cite the numbers in the publically available abstract of their paper. And if you want to read the paper itself, you have to hand over $49 to the Journal of Addiction Medicine.