Even before people had instant access to any and all kinds of information via the Internet, hypochondria – or being overly worried about having a serious illness, despite a lack of real symptoms – was relatively common. Even before the advent of quick and free access to medical information online, some people could convince themselves that they were the sufferers of some kind of terrible disease.
More a disorder of cognition or perception than a medical condition, hypochondria persists even in people who have access to immediate and proper medical information. Although for some medical attention is the only way they will convince themselves, if only for a short while, that they’re not deathly ill, access to medical information can seriously exacerbate the problem for others.
The World Wide Web of Worries
Becoming a hypochondriac is now easier than ever, with the Internet. The unrestricted access to medical information has changed the way people diagnose and treat their ailments.
A lot of sites on the Internet that claim to provide information about keeping healthy or that sell health-related products, list very vague sets of symptoms as indicators of diseases in order to convince as many people as possible that they need specific potions or treatments.
Whereas in the past a hypochondriac would see a doctor for a diagnosis, today that person can simply conduct a Google search of any troubling symptom. The results are certain to include a slew of preposterously over-blown potential causes for specific aches or pains. You may be suffering from a simple headache, but you’re sure to find a site somewhere online that will make you suspect a brain tumor.
This problem is so widespread now that the condition has been given its own name – “cyberchondria”. In 2008, Microsoft performed a study on how the Internet affected the health concerns of people with no medical training. They found that search engine users who already had a predisposition to assuming the worst about their symptoms were the most likely to be adversely affected by the “presence of escalators terminology” like that found on medical information web sites.
Of course, the Internet can be useful for finding crucial information about health issues, and it’s true that in some instances, online medical information has helped save lives. However, it’s up to us as Internet users in the age of information to distinguish between reliable information and marketing fluff or misinformed sales-speak.