Researchers want to learn more about a range of new internet-related mental health conditions.
The internet can be a great way to access support and information about mental health. You’re never alone online, and you’re rarely far from an answer to even the most obscure questions.
But now experts are calling for more research into whether time spent online is sparking a rise in internet-related mental health issues.
A new group called the European Problematic Use of the Internet Research Network is proposing research into problems like cyberhoarding and cyberchondria (obsessively research and self-diagnose health problems online).
What is cyberhoarding?
Cyberhoarding, or digital hoarding, is an unwillingness to delete info gathered online. This might be emails, images or downloaded files.
University of Hertfordshire consultant psychiatrist Prof Naomi Fineberg told The Guardian that “nobody knows the extent to which this is developing and causing problems” and that more research could help experts understand what diagnosis is most appropriate for patients.
Conditions like cyberhoarding and cyberchondria are versions of the offline mental health issues of hoarding and hypochondria.
Hoarding behaviour is often associated with conditions like Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD), but it can also be a mental health problem in its own right. 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.
Stephen Buckley, Head of Information at Mind, says some people have told the mental health charity that their hoarding extends to their digital lives, and they struggle to discard items like emails, photos or files.
He told Stylist.co.uk: “Many of us will save things because we might need them in the future – hoarding is when your need to keep things causes you distress or interferes with your day to day life.
“The reasons people hoard are complex, although we know that for some people it’s a way of coping with difficult feelings or stressful life experiences.”
What do researchers want to know?
The network’s chair, Prof Fineberg, has created a research manifesto proposing that the team looks into the range of issues that arise from problematic internet use to help define individual conditions.
Fineberg is also interested in working with tech companies to help identify people who are at risk of developing an internet-related mental condition.
She told The Guardian her team is interested in finding internet use patterns that “may allow us to detect whether or not you are going to turn out to be vulnerable or not”.
But experts aren’t trying to scare people about their internet use, or suggest they should stop going online.
Manifesto co-author Prof Zsolt Demetrovics of Eötvös Loránd University emphasised that “availability itself does not cause the problems”, adding that the internet also means that “the possibility of help is also more available”.
What should you do if you’re worried about cyberhoarding?
If you’re struggling with hoarding of any sort, Stephen Buckley suggests keeping a record of your behaviour.
“If hoarding is having a negative impact on your life, there are small steps that can make a difference. For example, keeping a diary can help you discover patterns in what triggers your hoarding behaviours so you can spot early warning signs,” he advised. “Setting simple goals can also be really helpful – like deleting just one thing per day, or talking to one person you trust about how you’re feeling.”
If hoarding behaviour is affecting your daily life, Buckley suggests speaking to a friend, family member or visiting your GP. For info on how to talk to your doctor about mental health and get the most out of your appointment, visit mind.org.uk/findthewords.
For mental health information and support visit Mind.