Cyberchondria & The Psychological Dark Side of Life Online

I spent the first part of this week in St. Louis at the USDLA Conference. I had a terrible night’s sleep, hopped on an early morning plane on Monday and gave my presentation in St. Louis later that afternoon. What became clear before I even arrived in St. Louis was that I was not feeling well. It wasn’t just being tired, it felt very much like the flu. So, of course, I paid for my in-flight wifi and Googled flu systems to check it out. You see, I had my flu shot, and one reputable site located through a Google search told me that the vaccine this year was especially effective, including 99.9% of all flus. So, the odds seemed rather slim that I had the flu, and yet the symptoms sure seemed to match: body aches, chills, fever, fatigue, loss of appetite, a little nasal congestion. When I returned home a couple of days later, I went to the doctor and she suspected that this was not the flu at all, but a rash on my chest suggested to her that it is more likely a reaction to a medication that I started a few days earlier. Fast forward to earlier this evening, when that little rash quickly expanded to a full body rash, ankles to scalp. A bit nervous, I decided to check it out at the local ER. They gave me medication that should work within four hours if it was an allergic reaction, but this doctor seems to think that it is a viral infection. So, I went to another clinic somewhere in this mix when I was feeling badly, they called it an allergic reaction as well. Virus or allergy? Time will tell, I suppose.

Now what does this have to do with a blog about life, learning, and leadership in the digital age? Well, as I sat in the ER this evening, of course I had to help the doctor out by comparing images of my rash to those on the web (free wifi at the local ER, so if Starbucks is full, here is a high-priced alternative). I even tried to get high-tech, by doing an image search (yes, certain evidence that I’m a geek, and maybe a bit strange). It led to the suspicion that I likely have the mumps, rubella, or maybe something worse? Wait! Didn’t I get vaccines for those? Don’t worry about the details. The Internet is more powerful than a measly vaccine (pun proudly intended)! The Internet doesn’t lie, especially the visual Internet. I mean, we all look exactly like those Facebook and Twitter profile pictures, right? And no, they did no give me any painkillers or mind-altering drugs. I’m just trying the make the most of my 4-hour stay at what I’m thinking of calling Medical Starbucks (They have plenty of young professionals and free wifi. Need I say more?).

In the end, the digital world has changed the way we think about and cope with our health concerns, hasn’t it? In fact, we now even have a digitized version of hypchrondia that people call cyberchondria. Don’t look it up right now, because I’m afraid that you might find a bit too many similarities between the description and the strange actions described by someone who’s blog post you might be reading at this moment. Oh wait, did I just try to diagnose myself as a cyberchordiac by looking up my symptoms online? We have to come up with a new name for that, maybe a meta-cyberchonrdiac.

Think of it, though. A cyberchondriac is a hypochondriac combined with an obsessive Internet gamer, and this game has no shortage of frightful tales, enough to leave you concluding that your sunburn is really cancer, or that the mole on your back is hard evidence that the bubonic plague is alive and well, and that it is following you around!

That is the dark side of medical information in the digital age, but there is a positive side as well, like the promising possibilities of Internet-based Patient Self-care, or the increased use of portals and communication tools between patient and doctor. There are many clever and exciting practices indeed.

Yet, this blog is all about affordances and limitations, and right now I’m focused on the limitations, namely because I saw a hint of cyberchondria in myself over the past week. And this is not the only new term used to explain psycho-social phenomena in the digital age. We also have things like compulsive Internet use, Internet gaming addiction, cybersexual addition, cyberphobia, infobesity (also called information overload), cyberstalking, and the unusually personal/relational way some of us think about the beloved devices in our lives (Is the iPhone the new pocket dog?). Digital amplifications of our dark sides?

Some of these are new phenomena, but from another perspective they are nothing out the ordinary, just the same old Adam, Eve, Job, and Jonah stuff:  wanting to see and be like God, not understanding and not liking it, feeling pain and letting it give birth to doubt and bitterness, letting fear and worry get the best of us, wanting to go our own way without regard for the way the other. I suspect that there is plain old human nature flowing through the veins of our digital selves, and sometimes that leads us down the strangest paths, causing us to make up new words just to describe it.

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About Bernard Bull

Dr. Bernard Bull is an author, professor of education, Vice Provost of Curriculum and Academic Innovation, podcast host, and blogger. Some of his books include Missional Moonshots: Insights and Inspiration for Educational Innovation, What Really Matters: Ten Critical Issues in Contemporary Education, The Pedagogy of Faith (editor), Adventures in Self-Directed Learning, and Digitized: Spiritual Implications of Technology. He is passionate about futures in education; educational innovation; and social entrepreneurship.