EU launches research group to stop ‘problematic’ internet use

The EU has established the ‘European Problematic Use of the Internet’ (EU-PUI) research network which aims to stop harmful web use.

Gambling, pornography, and excessive use of social media may sound like a good time for some folks. For others, each can pose a serious problem.

How problematic use impacts health, especially mental wellbeing, hasn’t been thoroughly researched. Support groups for such things have been available for decades, but prevention is always better than treatment where possible.

Professor Naomi Fineberg, Consultant Psychiatrist from the University of Hertfordshire and Chair of the new network, said:

“Problematic use of the internet is a serious issue. Just about everyone uses the internet, but information on problem use is still lacking.

Research has often been confined to individual countries or problematic behaviours such as internet gaming.

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.”

Understanding how such things impact health enables for better preventative measures. What that may entail, however, could be seen as encroaching on personal freedoms. For example, the EU setting a limit on how long its citizens can be on Facebook or Twitter in a day.

Such a scenario is unlikely, primarily due to how difficult it would be to enforce on a technical level. However, even limitation suggestions are likely to be met with resistance. Making something a ‘forbidden fruit’ can even attract some people more.

National firewalls like ‘The Great Firewall of China’ could be implemented but, even then – with the will – it wouldn’t be difficult to circumvent.

A 2015 World Health Organisation (WHO) report explored the public health implications of excessive internet use and compulsive use of electronic devices. The report led to new addictions being classified and guidelines issued for diagnosis.

Dr Sam Chamberlain, Consultant Psychiatrist from the University of Cambridge, who is leading research priorities for the network, added:

"Despite dedicated research leading to some breakthroughs in our understanding of the psychology and biology that underpins these behaviours, we still don’t know enough about the risk factors for problematic internet use.

The current level of evidence has to be increased to improve our ability to diagnose problems and predict an individual’s prognosis, as well as to develop effective interventions to help affected individuals and those at greatest risk.”

EU-PUI’s network could be seen as an extension of WHO’s work for its report but on a more ongoing basis. It’s been awarded €520,000 in EU funding, so citizens will be expecting results.

Things such as video games and social networks often play on people’s addictive nature, so targeted regulation here – rather than the internet itself – could go a long way to improving the mental wellbeing of users.

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