For nearly three decades, the World Wide Web has been revolutionizing how we learn, how we love, and how we, uh, share dank memes. But while for most of us the online world is, on average, a force for good, for others it can be a catalyst for some pretty unhealthy behavior.
Now, to help us better understand the mental and physical consequences of what they've termed "problematic use of the Internet" (PUI), researchers are officially launching the European Problematic Use of the Internet (EU-PUI) Research Network: a pan-European network aimed at examining and identifying disordered online behavior, as well as its causes and potential treatments.
"Problematic Use of the Internet is a serious issue," explained Professor Naomi Fineberg, a consultant psychiatrist from the University of Hertfordshire and Chair of the network, in a statement. "Just about everyone uses the Internet, but information on problem use is still lacking."
The network currently includes 123 experts from 38 countries across Europe and is funded through a €520,000 grant from the European Cooperation in Science and Technology (COST). But although the project has its roots in work looking at obsessive-compulsive spectrum disorders, the new network aims to include a broad range of disciplines in its research.
"We will need more than just psychiatrists and psychologists to help solve these problems," Fineberg said. "We need to bring together a range of experts, such as neuroscientists, geneticists, child and adult psychiatrists, those with lived experience of these problems and policymakers, in the decisions we make about the Internet."
With its official launch, the new network has published a manifesto, in which it sets out nine key areas of study. The researchers hope to pin down not only what exactly constitutes problematic use of the Internet but also how the disorder can be measured, understood, and potentially caught – and treated – before it grows out of control. Among the issues they intend to explore are obsessive gaming, which was officially designated a disease earlier this year by the World Health Organization, problematic porn usage, and "cyberchondria" – compulsively googling symptoms of illness only to convince yourself you're days away from death.
Something else the team hope to investigate is the extent to which PUI is influenced by genetics, personality, and society.
"Research has often been confined to individual countries, or problematic behaviours such as Internet gaming," explained Fineberg. "So we don’t know the real scale of the problem, what causes problematic use, or whether different cultures are more prone to problematic use than others... it may be that cultural or family factors affect the extent to which people develop problems, but that needs research to determine."
Despite the grave consequences of Internet addiction, the researchers stress that, for most of us, even prolonged Internet use is not dangerous.
"Availability itself does not cause the problems," manifesto co-author Professor Zsolt Demetrovics told the Guardian. "Someone will not be a problematic Internet user or a pornography addict just because it is more available."
And for those of us at risk, Demetrovics offers a dose of optimism.
"All these devices also mean that the possibility of help is also more available," he added. And with this new initiative, we will hopefully see that help getting even better and easier to access over the next few years.