Growing global concern about the public health and societal costs of problematic use of the internet (PUI), which has an estimated prevalence of 6% among the general population and which is increasingly recognised to affect children and young people, represents an emerging challenge for mental health research. Some disordered online behaviours, such as excessive gaming, buying, gambling, email checking, social media use and viewing pornography, cause such significant impairment of everyday functioning of some individuals that mental health professional help is sought. National health authorities are now expressing concern. However, there is lack of agreement on the definition of PUI as a ‘mental disorder’ and a critical scarcity of reliable information on its prevalence, clinical parameters, brain-based biology and socio-health-economic impact. Moreover, significant geographical differences in the magnitude of the problem (e.g. East Asia versus Europe) need to be better understood, to inform health policy and service development.
To this end, the EU under its Horizon 2020 umbrella has just launched a new four-year European Cooperation in Science and Technology (COST) Action Program (CA 16207), led by members of the WPA Anxiety and Obsessive Compulsive Disorders Section, to advance networked interdisciplinary research into problematic internet usage across Europe and beyond. The first steps will be to reach consensus on the reliable definition of the problem, devise age-appropriate assessment instruments to measure its severity, plan studies to clarify its clinical course and impact on health and quality of life as well as to clarify the underpinning brain-based mechanisms to support the development of screening biomarkers to identify those who are vulnerable before the problematic use becomes too entrenched and ultimately to identify targets to guide the development of new and effective interventions.