Among the daily multitude of news coverage discussing the psychological and social impacts of the Internet comes an article describing “cyberchondria“:

But what really ails me? Cyberchondria, loosely defined as the baseless fueling of fears and anxiety about common health symptoms due to Internet research, or, as I like to think of it, Googling oneself into a state of absolute, clinical hysteria over every last pain, itch and strange freckle on your body.

It’s easy to lose our bearings on a phenomenon like this and blame the Internet itself as the new social hazard that gives rise to this condition. It’s even in the language used here: cyberchondria as a diagnosis, and web searches as the cause. But actually (and the article does acknowledge, if not fully explore, this point), what we’re seeing here is an anxiety problem that isn’t created online — it just expresses itself there. People have had excessive worry and imagined catastrophic outcomes from mild symptoms for centuries — they just got their medical information elsewhere, until very recently.

If a person is having excessive anxiety about nightmarish health scenarios whenever a cough or itch starts, then it’s the obsessive thoughts and the compulsions to act on them that we should be examining and working to relieve. The Internet is just the arena in which those obsessions or compulsions play out. Google and WebMD do make it a lot easier and faster to act upon an impulse than, say, traveling to a medical school library — but it’s a mistake to conclude that a person is developing health-related anxieties because so much unfiltered medical information is now available online.

The good news is that with skilled counseling, these types of problems are treatable. And so I say again: “Don’t blame the Internet!”