The internet is fuelling a range of mental health disorders including “cyberchondria”, online hoarding and shopping addictions, an influential group of experts are warning as they call for urgent action to tackle the problem.
An international team of more than 100 researchers say the “all-pervasive” nature of the web is driving problematic pornography use, gambling and excessive gaming which is breaking up families and causing people to lose their jobs.
In the report, published in the journal ‘European Neurophsychopharmacology’, the researchers warn users have become addicted to the internet and developed obsessive behaviours such as repeatedly checking emails and social media and suffering cravings and withdrawal if they are unable to get online.
They call 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.
Prof Naomi Fineberg, a UK NHS consultant psychiatrist and chairman of the European Problematic Use of the Internet Research Network, said: “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 affected 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 say PIU is not just confined to young people but affects the whole of society, with women particularly at risk of online shopping addictions.
“Cyberchondria” – excessive online searching for health information – was also a growing issue, the report warned, as well as digital hoarding, where people feel compelled to buy new computers or disc drives because they were unable to delete their content.
Psychiatrists said 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 PIU since 2014, and it is about to include the new diagnosis of Gaming Disorder in the forthcoming revised International Classification of Mental Disorders.
Prof Zsolt Demetrovics, editor-in-chief of the ‘Journal of Behavioral Addictions’, said: “Many behaviours existed already, but with the internet they got a new form.”