The internet is fuelling a range of mental health disorders including ‘cyberchondria’, online hoarding, and shopping addictions, an influential group of experts warned today as they called for urgent action to tackle the growing problem.
An international team of more than 100 researchers said the ‘all pervasive’ nature of the web was driving problematic pornography use, gambling and excessive gaming which was breaking up families and causing people to lose their jobs.
In a wide-ranging report they warned users were becoming addicted to the internet and developing obsessive behaviours such as repeatedly checking emails and social media and suffering cravings and withdrawal if they were unable to get online.
They called for urgent research to find out how many people were affected by Problematic Internet Use (PIU) and discover the long-term impact so that regulations could be implemented and screen time guidelines drawn up.
NHS consultant psychiatrist Prof Naomi Fineberg, chair of the European Problematic Use of the Internet Research Network, said: “Problematic use of the internet is a serious issue. Just about everyone uses the internet, but much information on problem use is still lacking.
“We are at a sort of watershed starting to understand there is a problem. There are known harms, that include the development of mental disorders.
“We think that young people are particularly impacted because disruption to their life at that very crucial stage in childhood may have a long term impact
“Ultimately, we hope to be able to identify those most at risk from the internet before the problem takes hold, and to develop effective interventions that reduce its harms.”
The researchers said that problematic internet use was not just confined to young people but affected the whole of society, with women particularly at risk of online shopping addictions.
‘Cyberchondria’ defined as excessive online searching for health information, was also a growing issue, the report warned, as well as digital hoarding, where people felt compelled to buy new computers or disc drives because they were unable to delete their content.
Psychiatrists said that some addicted gamers were playing for up to 14 hours a day, putting their relationships at risk, and even forgetting to eat.
The World Health Organisation has recognised Problematic Use of the Internet (PUI) since 2014, and it is about to include the new diagnosis of Gaming Disorder in the forthcoming revised International Classification of Mental Disorders.
Dr Henrietta Bowden-Jones, of Imperial College, the Royal College of Psychiatrists’ Spokesperson on Behavioural Addictions said she had witnessed families who had been destroyed through online addictions.
“The negative consequences can be extraordinary,” she told a briefing in Central London to launch the report.
“You will hear frequent reports of young people eating their meals in their bedrooms because they have disengaged from their family life. When it comes to gambling families come forward because money has been stolen from them.
“With adult gamblers it’s even worse because of the loss of finances, and when you’ve defrauded your employer you end in prison, as a lot of my patients do before they come and get help.”
According to figures from the Office for National Statistics, nine in 10 Britons now regularly use the internet and virtually all adults aged 16 to 34 years were recent internet users (99%), compared with 44% of adults aged 75 years and over.
However recent figures by Ofcom showed that around one in five people have been harmed by the online bullying, harassment, fraud, violence of harmful content.
Prof Zsolt Demetrovics, Editor-in-Chief of the Journal of Behavioral Addictions said: “The emergence of the internet is probably the most important change of our lives in the past 25 years, it has totally changed the way we communicate, socialise and have access to information.
“ It brought in advantages into our lives but what we have experienced and what the research of the past 20 years we can recognised there are different problems related to the use of the internet.
“Many behaviours existed before or already but with the internet they got a new form.”
The report is published in the journal European Neurophsychopharmacology.