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What is cyberchondria?

How many of us depend on Google for answers to our nagging health-related queries? And, how many times do we end up feeling anxious or miserable at the kind of uncanny similarities in symptoms we seem to have with  almost every scary thing that is written about most of the diseases?

This kind anxiety makes us come back for more information. If you’re seeing yourself doing doing this on a daily basis, welcome to the club. Researchers have coined a name for it — the obsessive health-related online searching — cyberchondria.

Cyberchondria is defined by White and Horvitz as “the unfounded escalation of concerns about common symptomatology, based on the review of search results and literature on the web”.

In fact the word was among Webster’s New World Dictionary’s ‘words of the year’ in 2008.

It is a different manifestation of hypochondria, which is excessive worry about falling ill.

And, anxiety is not the only problem.

Researchers also contend that “the information obtained from healthcare-related searches can affect peoples’ decisions about when to engage a physician for assistance with diagnosis or therapy, how to treat an acute illness or cope with a chronic condition, as well as their overall approach to maintaining their health or the health of someone in their care.”

Here are six important aspects of cyberchondria:

  1. Cyberchondria is not a mental disorder.
  2. We seek reinforcements from online searches. The outcome or the reinforcements we get decide  largely determine whether further online searches are avoided or pursued.
  3. The anxiety-amplifying effects make cyberchondria inadequate as a reassurance-seeking strategy and coping mechanism.
  4. The perceived trustworthiness of the websites containing medical information may also play a role in maintaining cyberchondria.
  5. The wealth of information on the Internet may also fuel cyberchondria. The need to get a perfect answer keeps driving us to do repeated online searches.
  6.  Cyberchondria fuels another aspect of cyberspychology — digital epidemiology. When online queries are mapped to particular area, they give us a rough idea of the health condition of a set of population. Here’s a study on how Twitter was used to monitor HIV transmissions.

Reference(s):

Mary Aiken , Grainne Kirwan, Mike Berry , Ciaran A O’Boyle; Cyberpsychologist, Research Fellow, Institute of Leadership, RCSI, Lecturer in Psychology, Institute of Art, Design & Technology, Clinical Forensic Psychologist, Manchester Metropolitan University, Professor of Psychology, Head of RCSI Institute of Leadership; The age of cyberchondria

Ryen W. White and Eric Horvitz; Cyberchondria: Studies of the Escalation of Medical Concerns in Web Search

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