Is the internet making us ill?

Reports of internet-related medical conditions are on the rise. From cyberchondria to cyber hoarding, many of these techno-age disorders are thought to be digital versions of analogue conditions.

Whilst most internet usage is not dangerous to health, specialists are interested in understanding whether these new conditions are likely to be short or long-term issues, and who is most at risk. Dr Valerie Voon, Senior Research Associate at the University of Cambridge, has said that once health professionals have identified internet-related issues in their patients, they should try to mediate and mitigate [that] vulnerability, and perhaps identify treatment options earlier rather than later.

Prof Naomi Fineberg, Consultant Psychiatrist at University of Hertfordshire, suggested that internet-related conditions merit scrutiny.

The European Problematic Use of the Internet Research Network has been created to examine patterns of internet usage and its implications on health in more detail. Although, large studies could take years to complete.

Two conditions which Prof Fineberg has seen an increase of in her clinic are Cyber Hoarding and Cyberchondria.  

Cyber Hoarding is the reluctance to delete information gathered online. The information hoarded is often of no relevance to the user, yet deleting or removing it can cause high levels of anxiety. For example, the user could be worried about losing one important email, so chooses not to delete any of their emails for fear of accidentally removing the important one.

Cyberchondria, much like its non-internet related counterpart, Hypochondria, involves compulsively searching for reassurance about medical fears. Users can spend hours trying to match their symptoms to often unreliable online sources. This can lead to false self-diagnosis and unnecessary distress.

Due to the recent rise in the prevalence of such conditions, it is likely that health professionals will begin to work in collaboration with technology companies to flag the most vulnerable users. Methods of detection could include using digital biomarkers, which track patterns in personal internet usage and alert at-risk users. Despite the concerns raised, it is important to remember the many benefits of moderate internet usage, which has completely revolutionised the way we live our lives over the past thirty years.

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May 2021
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