The internet could be fuelling a range of new mental health disorders such as cyberchondria, online hoarding, and shopping addictions, experts have warned.
A group dubbed The European Problematic Use of the Internet Research Network have now called for internet companies to take responsibility and help scientists tackle problematic online behaviour.
They said while most internet use is harmless, concerns have recently grown over how its use may affect public health and spark subsequent issues with gambling, pornography, and online bullying.
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The internet could be fuelling a range of new mental health disorders such as cyberchondria, online hoarding, and shopping addictions (file photo)
THE GROWING PROBLEMS WITH INTERNET USE
The group said concerns have recently grown over how heavy internet use may affect public health.
The main areas for concern include:
Cyberchondria – The compulsive use of search engines and websites to self-diagnose serious diseases from common symptoms.
Cyberhoarding – Reluctance to delete downloaded information or files gathered from the internet
Online shopping addiction – Lack of impulse control when buying items such as clothing from online stores
Gambling – Ease of access to betting websites allows for an increase in compulsive gambling
Excessive social media use – This can produce addiction-like symptoms, including salience, withdrawal, mood modification and relapse.
The issues this team of more than 100 international researchers hope to explore include cyber hoarding – the reluctance to delete information gathered online – and cyberchondria – using search engines and websites to attempt to self-diagnose symptoms.
‘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 Professor Naomi Fineberg of the University of Hertfordshire, the Guardian reported.
She said with the evolution of online resources, people now use search engines and websites to research symptoms which could diagnose a serious ailment.
Professor Fineberg said this, and the problem of cyberhoarding, are still under-recognised.
She also said the conditions may merely be digital versions of preexisiting conditions, such as hypochondria, but claimed 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,’ she said.
The group put forward a manifesto for their research, identifying nine main areas including pinpointing what problematic internet use really is, and whether genetic or social factors have an impact.
Researchers have now called for collaboration from the industry to investigate so-called ‘digital biomarkers’ which could flag people who might be at risk.
This may make it easier to identify and protect those most at risk of developing behaviours such as problem online gaming or gambling.
Professor Fineberg, who is chairwoman of the European network, said the scientific community must ‘step up to the plate’ and start addressing problems associated with internet use.
She said: ‘We need to move towards identifying the most vulnerable groups, in terms of their personalities or their biological make-up, or perhaps the kinds of internet activities they are engaging in.
‘We are very interested in the concept of biomarkers, including digital biomarkers.
Researchers have now called for internet companies to take responsibility and help scientists tackle problematic online behaviour
‘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, and move on to interventions.’
Professor Fineberg added that one of the difficulties faced is the lack of information, including that held by internet companies, made available to researchers.
She said: ‘The tide is turning. I think the view is that even though we don’t have that much scientific data, if there are recognised harms associated with the products that the commercial providers need to take some responsibility for that.’
Dr Henrietta Bowden-Jones, director of the national problem gambling clinic, said there are examples of those in the gambling industry handing over ‘large chunks’ of data to researchers.
‘For the last decade people have felt that industry and treatment should be kept separate, as much as possible,’ she said.
‘I do feel that now, overall, there is a shift and people feel that industry can do something financially and indeed in terms of preventing harm.’
The manifesto of the network, which involves 123 international experts, is published in the journal European Neuropsychopharmacology.
The team has set out nine main areas of research as priorities, including what problematic internet use is, how it should be measured, how it affects health, and whether genetic or social factors influence it.