Cyberchondria: The dangerous illness of online self-diagnosis

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Cyberchondria: The dangerous illness of online self-diagnosis

Cyberchondria: The dangerous illness of online self-diagnosis

Subheading text
Today’s information-loaded society has led to an increasing number of people becoming trapped in a cycle of self-diagnosed health problems.
    • Author:
    • Author name
      Quantumrun Foresight
    • June 6, 2022

    It is not uncommon for a person to do additional research on a suspect medical problem, whether it be a cold, rash, bellyache, or some other ailment. However, what happens when the search for health and diagnostic information becomes an addiction?

    Cyberchondria context

    Cyberchondria is a combination of “cyberspace” and “hypochondria,” with hypochondria being an illness anxiety disorder. Cyberchondria is a technology-based mental disorder where a person spends hours researching illness symptoms online. Psychologists discovered that the primary motivation behind such obsessive googling is self-assurance, but instead of a person becoming assured, they instead make themselves increasingly anxious. The more a cyberchondriac tries to find information online to assure themselves that their illness is minor, the more they spiral into cycles of increased anxiety and stress. Cyberchondriacs also purportedly tend to jump to the worst conclusion possible, further deepening feelings of anxiety and stress.

    Doctors believe that a breakdown in the metacognitive process is the primary cause of the illness. Metacognition is the process of thinking about how a person thinks and learns. Instead of planning for good or desired outcomes through logical thinking, a cyberchondriac falls into a mental trap of worsening scenarios.

    Disruptive impact

    While cyberchondria is still not included in the American Psychiatric Association’s list of mental disorders as of December 2021, some of the behaviors exhibited by cyberchondriacs are similar to obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD). People with OCD perform repetitive tasks or rituals to calm their anxiety, similar to how cyberchondriacs spend hours researching symptoms and illnesses online, to the point of being unable to function offline. 

    Fortunately, some treatments and therapies are available to treat people suffering from cyberchondria. In particular, cognitive behavioral therapy could help cyberchondriacs actively interrogate the evidence that made them believe they have a severe condition. Instead of focusing on the perceived illness, they are trained to focus on their feelings of worry and concern. Google has instituted measures that caution users to treat the information they receive online as a reference only and not as a substitute for professional medical advice. Technology companies can create algorithms that seek to monitor the number of medical-related searches a person conducts in a day. If specific thresholds are met, these users receive notifications informing them that they may be suffering from cyberchondria.

    Implications for cyberchondria 

    The wider implications of people suffering from cyberchondria may include:

    • More medical practitioners offering 24/7 online consultations at lower fees to lessen people’s dependence on search engines for diagnoses and healthcare information.
    • Increased studies being funded into cyberchondria and forms of treatment, especially as more health-related sites appear on the internet.
    • Search engines and healthcare websites being required to make explicit disclaimers to inform users to seek professional medical guidance instead.

    Questions to comment on

    • Have you ever been guilty of temporarily becoming a cyberchondriac during a past illness?
    • Do you think the COVID-19 pandemic has contributed or worsened the occurrence of cyberchondria in internet users? 

    Insight references

    The following popular and institutional links were referenced for this insight: