We’ve spent the past few days talking about all things #MentalHealth and now experts are saying that more research is needed to understand new problems – and a new range of online-related mental health issues – that may arise out of internet use.
There’s no doubting online is fantastic in so many ways; you’re a click away from an array of support and information when it comes to mental health issues but like everything, it has a dark side. There’s an obvious disconnect to real-life interaction which can, in turn, lead to a host of other problems including increased isolation, depression and loneliness.
New mental health problems
A new group called the European Problematic Use of the Internet Research Network is proposing research into problems like ‘cyberhoarding’ and ‘cyberchondria’ – two issues that they say are becoming an increasing problem for people who spend time online, according to The Guardian.
What is ‘cyberhoarding’ and ‘cyberchondria’?
Cyberhoarding is associated with hoarding behaviour and conditions like Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), but it can also be a mental health problem in its own right. This modern variation is a reluctance to delete information gathered online. Researchers say that sufferers may fear that something terrible will happen if they get rid of things (e.g. that a ‘contaminated’ item might harm someone else), or that they might throw away something that later proves to be important, causing them anxiety. Consultant psychiatrist Prof Naomi Fineberg of the University of Hertfordshire said no one really knows the extent to which cyberhording is causing problems, but that it needed to be looked into further.
Cyberchondria is more common. How many of us have Googled symptoms until we feel sick to our stomachs and gotten (usually irrational) worst-case scenario outcomes? This is what Cyberchondria is; when a person compulsively uses search engines and websites in the hope of finding reassurance about medical fears, only to self-diagnose further ‘ailments’ and get stuck in an anxiety cycle as a result.
“What [hypochondriacs] used to do was search encyclopaedias and medical dictionaries and so on looking for signs and symptoms that they thought were serious,” Fineberg continued. “Of course, with the evolution of online resources, people now search the internet for signs and symptoms potentially indicative of a serious disease.” She said the main issue was that this issue was under-recognised.
Do I have it?
“I think it is more common than we realise,” she said. “I have seen it several times in my clinic.” Wondering if you may have this? Chances are if you’re googling symptoms several times a day, making repeated doctor’s appointments and if researching symptoms makes you feel worse, not better (again, worse-case scenario), you have some form of cyberchondria.
More research is needed because, as Fineberg explained, researchers weren’t fully sure whether these problems are short-term or chronic, and more help needs to be given to researchers so they can assess how severe an individual’s condition is – and if different treatments were working successfully or not.
Manifesto co-author Prof Zsolt Demetrovics of Eötvös Loránd University emphasised that it wasn’t about cutting online practices off completely, it was about utilising information to help those who were affected.
“Availability itself does not cause the problems,” he said, adding that 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. “All these [online] devices also mean that the possibility of help is also more available.”