Hypochondria in the Internet Age

The Internet’s changes to society have affected almost every industry, for better or for worse. Having access to such topics as currents events to instructions on how to do almost anything (marginally) well, the word wide web’s increasing 4.35 billion pages offer information on almost anything. The Internet’s all-knowingness, however, cannot promise perfection as sometimes its overabundance of information can influence society detrimentally. Internet hysteria is not just generated by the hoaxes that float in cyberspace, but oftentimes the websites which people most trust in as well, specifically the United State’s favorite symptom checking phenomenon: WebMD.

For those unfamiliar with the leader of the medical web, WebMD, in theory, aims to be everything its name suggests, the doctor of the Internet. In actuality, its claims of being easily accessible and brimming with information have been very doubtful.  WebMD has fallen into many pitfalls in its efforts to replace the common physician’s diagnosis. The website’s most prominent flaw is its lack of both transparency and honesty concerning its information provided.  The fact that pharmaceutical companies commercially fund WebMD have caused the website’s integrity to become clouded, especially in light of WebMD’s longstanding reputation of transforming any harmless symptom into a possible diagnosis of having contracting a terminal illness.

The website has been accused by several newspapers and doctors of providing the public with purposely vague or incorrect information in order to increase sales for specific drugs. This deception becomes even scarier, as of October 2013, when coupled with the fact that 8 out of 10 American adults research their symptoms online. Inspired by WebMD and other alarmist websites, a word has been coined to describe these reactions: “cyberchondria,” or the tendency to convince oneself that they have a certain disease after reading the symptoms on the web.

Scientists studying the effects of hypochondriasis have tracked the Internet’s correlation with incorrect preoccupancy with disease and found that an individual’s level of cyberchondria is actually determined by one’s aversion to uncertainty. A study conducted by Baylor University professor Dr. Thomas Fergus that was published in the journal, Cyberpsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, studied 512 adults with healthy lifestyles and no preexisting medical conditions. These adults assessed themselves with several statements corresponding to questions such as “how much time do you spend worrying about your health?” or “I always want to know what the future has in store for me”.  Fergus explained the results of his experiment and that symptom searching’s addictive effect by stating that, “If I’m someone who doesn’t like uncertainty, I may become more anxious, search further, monitor my body more, or go to the doctor more frequently — and the more you search, the more you consider the possibilities. If I see a site about traumatic brain injuries and have difficulties tolerating uncertainty, I might be more likely to worry that’s the cause of the bump on my head.”


Moreover, Fergus notes that even though hypochondria is one of humankind’s oldest flaws, the internet provides its own specific dangers as one search can present all the possibilities for one symptom in one concise list, which can be extremely damaging for those with high anxiety. These worries have been known to generate further anxiety relating to financial ruin as well as making medical related fears one of the both common and consuming phobias. In an age where information on diseases has never been more convenient, this very knowledge can often make some sites like WebMD become their own disease, proving that in some situations, ignorance really is bliss.

 — Colette Juran, Staff Writer

Posted by on January 7, 2015. Filed under World News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry