Do you have cyberchondria? Defining problematic internet usage

Do you have cyberchondria? Defining problematic internet usage
© iStock/ KatarzynaBialasiewicz

There is a new definition of problematic internet usage, and research assessing potential new cyber mental health conditions such as cyberchondria and dysphoria from internet withdrawal.

The new report is published in European Neuropsychopharmacology and defines problematic internet usage under the umbrella term Problematic Use of the Internet (PUI), which includes various cyber behaviours.

Defining problematic internet usage

Some examples of the cyber behaviours include:

  • Cyberchondria, which involves obsessive searching of health symptoms for self-diagnosis;
  • Compulsive sexual behaviour online;
  • Cyber bullying;
  • Gaming Disorder; and
  • A sense of dysphoria following withdrawal from internet use.

The report defines problematic internet usage as ‘a range of repetitive impairing behaviours.’

The report adds: ‘The Internet can act as a conduit for, and may contribute to, functionally impairing behaviours including excessive and compulsive video gaming, compulsive sexual behaviour, buying, gambling, streaming or social networks use. There is growing public and National health authority concern about the health and societal costs of PUI across the lifespan.’

How prevalent is problematic internet usage?

The report says: ‘Increasing exposure to the Internet, coupled with poor personal control over its use, suggests that the societal risk of PUI may be growing.’

The implications of problematic internet usage

There is also considerable media interest in the relationship between children’s digital habits and their mental health, with growing concern among parents about how to ensure that their child does not have problematic internet usage. According to the report, a nationally representative sample of students found that adolescents who had more on-screen time and more internet use had lower psychological well-being while those with lower use had greater levels of happiness.

These concerns about problematic internet usage, however, must be balanced with the positive impacts of internet use, especially the dissemination of news and other information. The report defines the internet as a ‘new environment in which a wide range of problematic behaviours may emerge’.

The future of government policy and psychiatric therapy relating to problematic internet usage is yet to be seen. Horizon 2020 have funded a new four year European Cooperation in Science and Technology (COST) Action programme for scientists and clinicians to conduct interdisciplinary research into problematic interest usage, from the perspective of impulsive, compulsive, and addictive disorders.

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