Researchers suggest that, for the general population, the health information found on the Internet may have negative effects.
What Is Health Anxiety?
Health anxiety is also called illness anxiety or hypochondria. Health anxious people often believe that they have a serious illness or medical condition, and they may be unduly alarmed about any physical or psychological symptoms they detect, no matter how minor the symptom may be.
Severe health anxiety is known to co-occur with psychological disorders such as bipolar disorder, clinical depression, obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), as well as a generalized anxiety disorder diagnosis.
How Is Health Anxiety Related to Internet Use
Researchers say there is a reciprocal relationship between health anxiety and using Internet to seek health information.
Health anxious people tend to go online to find health information, hoping to reassure themselves in order to decrease anxiety. Going online, however, has been shown to increase rather than decrease health anxiety, which in turn will again reinforce online seeking.
Why do health anxious people seek health and medical information online? A primary reason is that they feel a constant need to seek reassurance to reduce anxiety and uncertainty about their health.
However, health anxious people are known to selectively attend to information that conﬁrms their worries about being ill, and they ignore information that counters their existing belief of being ill: this is referred to as the illness-related attentional bias.
Insights from Research Studies
Myriad research studies have confirmed the reciprocal relationship between health anxiety and online information-seeking.
In a 2013 study, a group of researchers asked 5,322 participants how many times in the past two months they searched online to find information regarding a specific health- or medical- related problem they have or thought they might have. Participants’ level of anxiety was also measured with an 18-item Dutch short health anxiety inventory.
The findings show that health anxiety is a phenomenon that might emerge in individuals with non-clinical levels of health anxiety, rather than a characteristic of clinically health anxious individuals. This may indicate that, for the general population, the health information found on the internet may indeed have negative effects.
This observation was corroborated in a similar study of 731 participants. In this study, Internet-using individuals with higher levels of illness anxiety reported fearing more diseases and having greater functional impairment, but paradoxically these individuals also reported being less likely to have a medically confirmed unstable physical illness.
Interestingly, researchers in the 731-participant study found that the duration of Internet checking is related to levels of anxiety, with long-curation Internet uses creating more severe anxiety than short-duration uses both during and after the Internet checking.
Long duration is more than 3 hours, and short duration is less than one hour. Approximately 72.1% of long-duration Internet users reported worsening during checking (vs 51.89% of short-duration Internet users), and 71.7% of long-duration Internet users reported worse anxiety after symptom checking (vs 46.0% of short-duration Internet users).
Fam te Poel, et al. 2016. “The curious case of cyberchondria: A longitudinal study on the reciprocal relationship between health anxiety and online health information seeking.” Journal of Anxiety Disorders, 43: 32-40.
Emily R. Doherty-Torstrick, Kate E. Walton and Brian A. Fallon. 2016. “Cyberchondria: Parsing Health Anxiety From Online Behavior.” Psychosomatics, 57: 390–400.