The internet could be fuelling a rise in new conditions such as cyberchondria and cyberhoarding, experts have warned.
While researchers say most internet use is benign, it can lead some people to develop problems. Now experts are calling for more research to understand the range of problems that exist, who might be at risk, and how individuals can be helped.
A new collaboration dubbed the European Problematic Use of the Internet Research Network will examine these and other internet-related health issues such as gambling, pornography and gaming.
Among the issues they are hoping to explore are cyberhoarding – reluctance to delete information gathered online – and cyberchondria – compulsively using search engines and websites in the hope of finding reassurance about medical fears, only to self-diagnose further ailments.
“What [hypochondriacs] used to do was search encyclopaedias and medical dictionaries and so on looking for signs and symptoms that they thought were serious,” said consultant psychiatrist Prof Naomi Fineberg of the University of Hertfordshire. “Of course, with the evolution of online resources people now search the internet for signs and symptoms potentially indicative of a serious disease.”
The problem, she said, is probably under-recognised. “I think it is more common than we realise,” she said. “I have seen it several times in my clinic.”
Cyberhoarding, she added, is another problem researchers are planning to explore further. “Again, nobody knows the extent to which this is developing and causing problems,” she said.
Fineberg said that at present it is unknown whether such problems are purely “digital versions” of analogue conditions. But, she said, the issue merits scrutiny.
“Either that would enrich the diagnosis of these other disorders like hypochondriasis or there might even, depending on what we find, be an argument for creating even more new diagnoses,” said Fineberg.
Writing in the journal European Neuropsychopharmacy, Fineberg – who chairs the network – and colleagues put forward a manifesto for research, noting much needs to be done to unpick the issues around problematic internet use, from defining different conditions to understanding whether they are addiction problems or, for example, are more akin to obsessive compulsive disorders.
If you have experienced cyberhoarding, cyberchondria or internet-related health issues in general– we would like to hear from you.
Your responses will only be seen by the Guardian and we’ll be in touch if we are considering your response as part of our reporting. You can read terms of service here.
It is also unclear whether problems are short-term or chronic, while scales are needed to help researchers assess how severe an individual’s condition is – and whether it is improving or getting worse with different treatments.
“What we are interested in is starting to understand and perhaps identify who is vulnerable and perhaps can we do something to try to mediate and mitigate that vulnerability, and perhaps identify treatment options for that group earlier rather than later,” said Dr Valerie Voon from the University of Cambridge.
Among the possibilities the team put forward was working with tech companies to find ways to flag people who might be at risk.
“We are very interested in the concept of biomarkers, including digital biomarkers; in other words, the pattern of your accessing the internet may allow us to detect whether or not you are going to turn out to be vulnerable or not,” said Fineberg, although she admits at present this is just a theoretical idea. One possibility she suggested was that sites could flag when you have spent several hours on them.
Dr Henrietta Bowden-Jones, spokeswoman on behavioural addictions for the Royal College of Psychiatrists, said it was important not to demonise activities like gaming, which the World Health Organization recently classified as a mental health condition. “It is not an epidemic, as some people worry about,” she said.
But for those who develop a problem, she said the impact on finances, education, social life and relationships can be devastating – particularly for children, who can become “extremely pathological very quickly” after a serious life event such as the separation of parents. “But normally one would want to see a behaviour for a while before you take it seriously and decide to intervene,” she said.
Prof Zsolt Demetrovics of Eötvös Loránd University in Budapest, a co-author of the new manifesto, stressed that spending even long periods of time on the internet, or using it to carry out what were once offline behaviours, is not necessarily harmful.
He said: “Availability itself does not cause the problems … someone will not be a problematic internet user or a pornography addict just because it is more available.” The internet can also bring benefits, he added: “All these devices also mean that the possibility of help is also more available.”
Site Search 360 Custom Site Search