Cyberchondria in the time of the COVID-19 pandemic06 April 2021
Cyberchondria is an excessive or repeated online health information seeking that is associated with increasing levels of health anxiety or distress. This article presents a model of cyberchondria during public health crises such as the COVID-19 pandemic. The factors that contribute to cyberchondria at this time include (a) a heightened perception of threat and fear of a newly identified and poorly understood disease; (b) difficulty in coping with uncertainty associated with the pandemic; (c) lack of authoritative and trustworthy sources of relevant health information; (d) difficulty in coping with abundance of information that is often confusing, conflicting, unverified and constantly updated, along with a decreased ability to filter out unnecessary information; and (e) inability of excessive online health information seeking to provide the necessary information and deliver reassurance. These factors amplify fear and distress, which increases the perception of threat and uncertainty and perpetuates further online health searches. Cyberchondria has significant public health implications because of the associated distress or functional impairment and effects on health behaviors. Cyberchondria should be addressed by targeting a heightened perception of threat, improving management of uncertainty and online health information and promoting an ability to critically appraise the results of online health searches. This should contribute to a better online health information literacy. The model of cyberchondria during the COVID-19 pandemic explains the hypothesized rise in cyberchondria during public health emergencies and helps to formulate a framework for prevention of cyberchondria and its effective management.