Eight new mental illnesses brought to you by the Internet
That’s no mere bloggy hyperbole. As the Internet evolved into a ubiquitous part of #ModernLife, we’ve witnessed a rise in the number of distinct mental disorders directly tied to our use of digital technology. These afflictions, which range from benign to destructive, weren’t recognized by the medical community until very recently, and didn’t even exist before the Clinton administration.
Some of these disorders are new versions of old afflictions retooled for the mobile broadband age, while others are wholly new creatures. Don’t be surprised if you’ve felt a tinge of at least one or two of them.
Phantom Ringing Syndrome
What is it: When your brain punks you into thinking your phone is buzzing in your pocket.
Have you ever reached for the vibrating phone in your pocket only to realize that it was silent the whole time—or weirder still, it wasn’t even in your pocket to begin with? While you may be slightly delusional, you aren’t alone.
According to Dr. Larry Rosen, author of the book iDisorder, 70 percent of people who self-categorize as heavy mobile users have reported experiencing phantom buzzing in their pocket. It’s all thanks to misplaced response mechanisms in our brains.
“We’ve probably always felt slight tingling in our pocket. A few decades ago we would have just assumed it was a slight itch and we would scratch it,” Dr. Rosen told TechHive. “But now we’ve set up our social world to be tied to this little box in our pocket. So, whenever we feel any tingling in our leg we get a burst of neurotransmitters from our brain that can cause either anxiety or pleasure and prompt us to action. So, instead of reacting to this sensation like it’s a few wayward tingling nerves, we react as if it’s something we have to attend to right now.”
In the future, it’s possible that as new mobile form factors like Google Glass notify us in a visual way (the current incarnation of Glass uses audio cues rather than visual), our brains may be primed to see things that aren’t there.
What is it: The anxiety that arises from not having access to one’s mobile device. The term “Nomophobia” is an abbreviation of “no-mobile phobia.”
You know that horrible disconnected feeling when your phone dies and there’s no electrical outlet in sight? For a few among us, there’s a very neural pathway between that uncomfortable feeling of techno deprivation and a full-on anxiety attack.
Nomophobia is the marked increase in anxiety some people feel when they are separated from their phones. While phone addiction may sound like a petty #FirstWorldProblem, the disorder can have very real negative effects on people’s lives. So much so that the condition has found its way into the most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) and has prompted a dedicated Nomophobia treatment program at Morningside Recovery Center in Newport Beach, California.
“We’ve all been conditioned to be alert for notifications from our phones,” said Dr. Rosen. “We’re like Pavlov’s dogs in a way. You see people pull out their phones and two minutes later do it again even though nothing has taken place. That’s driven by reflex action as well as by anxiety to make sure we haven’t missed out on anything. It’s all part of the FOMO [Fear Of Missing Out] reaction.”
As it turns out, nomophobia is not distributed eaqually among all mobile users. Dr. Rosen and Dr. Nancy Cheever conducted an experiment that found that those who self-identify as heavy users experience the effects of being without their phone most acutely.
What is it: The disorientation and dizziness some people feel when interacting with certain digital environments.
Apple’s latest version of iOS is a flattened, versatile, and beautiful reinvention of the mobile user interface! Unfortunately, it is also making people barf. And it provided the most recent high-profile example of cybersickness.
As soon as the new incarnation of iOS was pushed out to iPhone and iPad users last month, the Apple support forums started filling with complaints from people feeling disoriented and nauseous after using the new interface. This has largely been attributed to Apple’s snazzy utilization of the parallax effect, which makes the icons and homescreen appear to be moving within a three-dimensional world below the display glass.
This dizziness and nausea resulting from a virtual environment has been dubbed cybersickness. The term came about in the early 1990s to describe the disorienting feeling experienced by users of early virtual reality systems. It’s basically our brains getting tricked into motion sickness when we’re not actually moving.
What is it: Depression caused by social interactions, or lack thereof, on Facebook.
A University of Michigan study shows that depression among young people directly corresponds to the amount of time they spend on Facebook.
One possible reason is that people tend to post only good news about themselves on Facebook: Vacations, promotions, party pics, etc. So, it’s very easy to fall under the false belief that everyone else is leading far happier and successful lives than you (when this may not be the case at all).
Keep in mind that increased social media interaction does not have to lead to despair. Dr. Rosen also conducted a study of the emotional state of Facebook users (PDF) and found that while there was indeed a correlation between Facebook usage and emotional issues such as depression, users who had a large number of Facebook friends were actually shown to have fewer incidences of emotional strain. This is particularly true when their social media usage was coupled with other forms of communication like talking on the phone.
The moral of the story seems to be 1) don’t believe everything your friends post on Facebook and 2) pick up the phone every so often.
Internet Addiction Disorder
What is it: A constant and unhealthy urge to access the Internet.
Internet Addiction Disorder (sometimes referred to as Problematic Internet Use) is excessive Internet use that interferes with daily life. The terms “addiction” and “disorder” are somewhat controversial within the medical community as the compulsive use of the Internet is often a symptom of a larger problem, rather than a unique disorder in itself.
“Dual Diagnosis is part of [treatments] so that the issue is focused on other disorders such as depression, OCD, ADD, and social anxiety,” wrote Dr. Kimberly Young in an email to TechHive. Dr. Young has run the Center for Internet Addiction, which treats numerous forms of Internet addictions such as online gaming addiction, online gambling, and cybersex addiction.
In addition, she finds that forms of Internet addiction can usually be attributed to “things like poor coping skills, low self-esteem, and low self-efficacy.”
Online Gaming Addiction
What is it: An unhealthy need to access online multiplayer games.
According to a 2010 study funded by the South Korean government, about 8 percent of the population between the ages of 9 and 39 suffer from either Internet or online gaming addiction. The country has even enacted a so-called “Cinderella Law,” which cuts off access to online games between midnight and 6 a.m. to users under the age of 16 nationwide.
While there are few reliable stats regarding video game addiction in the United States, the number of online help groups specifically aimed at the affliction has risen in recent years. Examples include the Center for Internet Addiction’s Online Gaming program and On-Line Gamers Anonymous, which has fashioned its own 12-step recovery program.
While the current edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders does not recognize online gaming addiction as a unique disorder, the American Psychiatric Association has decided to include it in its index (or section III), which means it will be subject to more research and may eventually be included along with other non-substance based addictions like gambling addiction.
“If you look at the brain, when you are addicted to something your brain is telling you that it needs certain neurotransmitters—particularly dopamine and serotonin—to feel good,” says Dr. Rosen. “The brain learns very quickly that certain activities will release these chemicals. If you’re a gambling addict, that activity is gambling. If you’re a gaming addict, then it’s playing games. That need for those neurotransmitters drives your behavior. It makes you want to do it again and again.”
What is it: The tendency to believe you have diseases you read about online.
The human body is a magnificent bundle of surprises that constantly greets us with mysterious pains, aches, and little bumps that weren’t there last time we checked. The majority of the time these little abnormalities turn out to be absolutely nothing. But the Web’s vast archive of medical literature allows our imaginations to run wild with all manner of nightmarish medical scenarios!
Have a headache? It’s probably nothing. But then again, WebMD did say that headaches are one of the symptoms of a brain tumor! There’s a chance you may die very soon!
That’s the kind of thinking that goes on in the head of Cyberchondriacs—a downward spiral of medical factoids strung together to reach the worst possible conclusions. And it’s far from uncommon. A 2008 Microsoft study found that search-engine-aided self-diagnosis typically led the afflicted searcher to conclude the worst possible outcome.
“[The Internet] can exacerbate existing feelings of hypochondria and in some cases cause new anxieties. Because there’s so much medical information out there, and some of it’s real and valuable and some it’s contradictory,” says Dr. Rosen. “But on the Internet most people don’t practice a literal view of information. You can find a way to turn any symptom into a million awful diseases. You feed the anxiety that you’re getting sick.”
Hypochondria, of course, was around long before the Internet. But previous generations didn’t have a way to surf medical sites at three in the morning researching the million different ways their bodies might fail them. Cyberchondria is just hypochondria with a broadband connection.
The Google Effect
What is it: The tendency of the human mind to retain less information because it knows that all answers are only a few clicks away.
Thanks to the Internet, a single individual can easily access nearly all the information civilization has amassed since the beginning of time. And as it turns out, this ability may be altering the very way our brains function.
Sometimes referred to as “The Google Effect,” research has shown (PDF) that the limitless access to information has caused our brains to retain less information. We get lazy. Somewhere in our minds we think “I don’t have to memorize this because I can just Google it later.”
According to Dr. Rosen, the Google Effect isn’t necessarily a bad thing. It could be the mark of societal evolution where the end result is a smarter, more informed populace. But it’s also possible, he concedes, that it may have a negative result in certain situations. For example, a young teenager might not retain information for a test by assuming the knowledge will be readily available, he says.
We are all going insane
If you’ve ever watched as a moth repeatedly kamikazes your porch lamp, or as your cat unnecessarily freaks out over the presence of a laser pointer, you’ve witnessed the sometimes uncomfortable meeting of the natural world with our new, digital reality.
Advanced as we humans are, we still share a lot in common with those lower creatures. In evolutionary terms, we’ve been thrust pretty quickly into a new digital world to which our brains are hurrying to adapt. Some of the afflictions we suffer may reveal that the process of adaptation isn’t yet finished.
In fact, when you think about it, it’s not surprising that our brains sometimes get sick because they can’t process all the bizarre figments of this new world. Really, it’s more surprising that it doesn’t happen far more often.