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Friday, November 26, 2010

Cyberchondria: Is the Internet Making Us Sick?

Posted By on Fri, Nov 26, 2010 at 9:00 AM

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I have a friend who is convinced she has a myriad number of health problems - a thyroid condition, heart disease, etc. - based on self-diagnoses from the Internet. She eventually went to a doctor to see if any of these diagnoses were accurate and was told her concerns were unfounded. But she doesn't believe them.  Is there anything I can do to get her to stop or at least tone down these shenanigans? It's affecting MY health now.
~Sick Of It


This is precisely how my ex convinced me I had Pheochromocytoma, or rather, it would have if I had actually heard her correctly and not "fear of Oklahoma." Your friend is certainly not alone. According to the Pew Internet and American Life Project, 61% of adults seek out medical information and advice online. The obvious reasons why we do this are because it's easy and free.  It's quite effortless to turn a case of hiccups into congestive heart failure with the aid of Google Hauser, MD.  Of course, such searches do little to assess our actual problems, aside from giving us a severe case of the skeeves.

 You know what else you can do on the Internet? Everything! You can even pretend you're on a red carpet date with Ryan Kwanten from True Blood.

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Also, it doesn't help that the information from sources like WebMD and Mayo Clinic is accurate and reliable, for all intents and purposes. But, our health is more complex than an internet search could ever accommodate, which is probably why they make doctors go to school for a decade and not twenty minutes.

It sounds like your friend suffers from cyberchondria, which is my new favorite pun, and also a web-based form of hypochondria. Let us all, for a moment, note the irony of a non-medically-trained person on the Internet diagnosing a stranger with a "condition" after blasphemizing just such a practice a few sentences earlier. All done? Good.

Since your friend has already seen doctors and dismissed them, helping her isn't going to be as easy as telling her to turn off the Internet. You can try to help assuage your friend's fears by telling her to stick to credible websites that don't just diagnose symptoms, but have more defined search functions that can tell you things like the probability of a 28-year-old getting a brain tumor, for instance. Health on the Net is a good one.  It's not a cure-all or anything, but sometimes a more guided search can provide a much-needed dose of reality to cyberchondriacs.  You might also let her know that what turns up most often in Internet searches is based on algorithms that judge sites by click rates and popularity, rather than medical manifest destiny. Now if you'll excuse me, I have to get my fear of Oklahoma checked out.
 

Social-media mistress Anna Pulley likes to give advice about how to play well with others on the internets. If you have a question about etiquette involving technology, shoot her a question at AskAnnaSF@gmail.com.

Follow us on Twitter: @annapulley or @SFWeekly 

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