The rapid evolution of genotyping and sequencing technologies means that genetic variation data are becoming readily available in the large populations necessary for research into the aetiology of complex traits and disorders. Now, rather than being limited by genotyping, we are starting to be restricted by the availability of phenotypic and environmental information. To understand the dynamics of genetic influences across development and in different contexts, we must develop new approaches that will complement traditional questionnaires and clinical data to give us affordable, repeatable and detailed assessments on a scale to match our vast repositories of genetic data.

Fortunately, new digital technologies can help us to do that. Our EMBERS (Emotion Monitoring by Electronic Remote Sensing) project uses online social networks and other electronic resources to collect high-resolution phenotypic and environmental data in genetically informative population samples such as the Twins Early Development Study (TEDS).

Born around the same time as the commercial Internet, today’s emerging adults are the Internet generation, with most engaging frequently with their real-life peer groups through online social networks. For this generation of adults, online social networks are increasingly integrated with offline networks, and an important source of social support and interaction. If we are to understand social influences on mental health and disorder in this or future generations of adults, then we must take notice of online, as well as offline social activity. Fortunately, whereas offline social networks are difficult to assess and track, online social networks are detailed databases of real-time social activity. Since social networks are an important factor in both positive and negative behaviours, with peer influence leading to outcomes such as depression, obesity and positive mental wellbeing, learning about these interactions is crucially important to our understanding of mental health and wellbeing.

As the first stage of EMBERS, supported by a Centenary Award from the MRC, we have collected over four million tweets from 2,500 TEDS volunteers. By comparing their tweets with standard questionnaire data collected at the same time, we are establishing the effectiveness of Twitter data for measuring positive and negative mood in emerging adulthood. If successful, we will use the data to track the changing influences of genes and environment on positive and negative mood through this exciting and scary time of life.

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