Internet giants urged to help scientists tackle problem online behaviour

Biological mechanisms behind problematic internet usage warrant further research, experts suggest (Dominic Lipinski/PA) Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

Internet companies should take responsibility and help scientists tackle problematic online behaviour, experts have said.

Researchers have called for collaboration from the industry to investigate so-called “digital biomarkers”, or patterns of usage, linked to unhealthy habits.

This may make it easier to identify and protect those most at risk of developing behaviours such as problem online gaming or gambling, they said.

Biological mechanisms behind problematic internet usage also warrant further research, they suggest.

The comments were made at a press conference to launch a manifesto by the European Network for Problematic Usage of the Internet.

The group will encourage research into the extent of problematic use and factors driving this behaviour.

Professor Naomi Fineberg, a consultant psychiatrist at Hertfordshire Partnership University NHS Foundation Trust, said the scientific community must “step up to the plate” and start addressing problems associated with internet use.

She said: “We need to move towards identifying the most vulnerable groups, in terms of their personalities or their biological make-up, or perhaps the kinds of internet activities they are engaging in.

“We are very interested in the concept of biomarkers, including digital biomarkers.

“In other words, the pattern of your accessing the internet may allow us to detect whether or not you are going to turn out to be vulnerable or not, and move on to interventions.”

Prof Fineberg, chairwoman of the European network, said one of the difficulties faced is the lack of information, including that held by internet companies, made available to researchers.

She said: “The tide is turning. I think the view is that even though we don’t have that much scientific data, if there are recognised harms associated with the products that the commercial providers need to take some responsibility for that.”

Dr Henrietta Bowden-Jones, director of the national problem gambling clinic, said there are examples of those in the gambling industry handing over “large chunks” of data to researchers.

“For the last decade people have felt that industry and treatment should be kept separate, as much as possible,” she said.

“I was very surprised in the last year to see and hear people like (NHS England chief executive) Simon Stevens talk about the involvement of the industry at a much higher level in relation to responsibility.

“I do feel that now, overall, there is a shift and people feel that industry can do something financially and indeed in terms of preventing harm.”

The manifesto of the network, which involves 123 international experts, is published in the journal European Neuropsychopharmacology.

The team has set out nine main areas of research as priorities, including what problematic internet use is, how it should be measured, how it affects health, and whether genetic or social factors influence it.