Does the Internet Make Us Healthy or Sick – or Does It Just Make the Psychiatrists Crazy?


“Every new technical innovation frightens us,” said Dr. Jan Kalbitzer, a specialist in psychiatry and psychotherapy at Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin and one of the scientific directors of the project “Internet and Mental Health” funded by the Daimler and Benz Foundation. “This phenomenon has been seen time and again in the past – and the Internet is no exception.” The invention of the pocket watch, for example, or the appearance of the first automobiles provoked fierce rejection and gave rise to serious fears for their users’ health, even among experts. The process has remained unchanged throughout the decades, Kalbitzer explained: At first there is widespread fear; this is followed by a habituation effect, and finally the concern that was so forcefully expressed at the outset is simply suppressed. Especially in view of the often overdramatized, supposedly factual articles about a whole generation of young people addicted to gambling and already lost in the vast expanses of the Internet, it is helpful to keep this recurring pattern in mind, he said.

“Especially since we know today how incredibly unreliable psychiatric diagnoses really are, we must be cautious and above all critical of so-called experts when we consider from a medical perspective the ways in which the Internet affects our health,” Kalbitzer noted. This is well illustrated by the so-called Rosenhan experiment, in which completely healthy patients had themselves admitted to clinics and claimed to hear voices, although they were entirely free of symptoms. They were all wrongly diagnosed, and it was not noticed that they were in fact actors. In a second part of the experiment, David Rosenhan told the psychiatric institutions that he had admitted pseudo-patients, although this was not actually the case. The doctors nevertheless claimed to have identified several “malingerers.”

This problem of insufficient validity of psychiatric diagnoses also affects the evaluation of Internet addiction, Kalbitzer continued. In contrast to psychiatric and psychological models that focus on the dangers of the Internet, a project funded by the Daimler and Benz Foundation also involves investigating the healthful aspects of Internet use. “In the crisis ward of Charité’s Day Center, I conduct interviews and ask patients what role the Internet played in the development of their mental disorder,” he said. Extensive population studies involving high-intensity Internet users are also being conducted at the Münster and Paderborn locations, in order to enable statistically significant statements to be made. In addition, philosophers are critically examining the disease patterns on which these studies are based. It was revealed that a decisive criterion for identifying the presence of a possible disorder is not the length of time spent on the Internet, but rather whether or not the respondents feel that they themselves are in control of the situation. The ability not to react impulsively to internal or external stimuli also appears to be a promising factor. Many people who are at the beginning of a mental health crisis constantly search the Internet for new information as a reflex action. “In doing so, they seem to have the feeling that this will enable them to influence and change their condition.”

Dr. Jan Kalbitzer studied medicine and philosophy in Freiburg, Hanover and Haifa and earned his doctorate in Copenhagen and Oxford. This was followed by further training as a specialist in psychiatry and psychotherapy, and then scientific activity at Charité – Universitätsmedizin Berlin. In 2015, he received the Max Rubner Award for his research on the effects of the Internet on the psyche, and since 2016 he has been one of the scientific directors of the Ladenburg Research Network “Internet and Mental Health” of the Daimler and Benz Foundation.

Dialog in the Museum
December 11, 2018
Mercedes-Benz Museum
70372 Stuttgart

Dr. Jan Kalbitzer
Scientific Director of the Ladenburg Research Network “The Internet and Mental Health” of the Daimler and Benz Foundation