Google increasing condition which makes parents wrongly believe their child is ill, doctors warn

Phoebe Southworth
·3 min read
Great Ormond Street Hospital in London - Justin Tallis/AFP
Great Ormond Street Hospital in London - Justin Tallis/AFP

Google is driving up cases of a condition that makes parents wrongly believe their child is ill, Great Ormond Street doctors have warned.

Obsessive researching of symptoms on the internet is leading to more cases of fabricated or induced illness (FII), according to medics from the leading children's hospital.

The condition, also known as "Munchausen's syndrome by proxy", is when parents' behaviour to convince doctors that their child is unwell causes harm to that child's wellbeing, or is likely to do so.

Doctors from Great Ormond Street Hospital (GOSH) in London have helped formulate new Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) guidance.

It advises paediatricians to intervene early and communicate openly with caregivers who may be worrying excessively, rather than hold secret meetings with colleagues which can cause rifts between medical professionals and families.

This will help avoid children being unnecessarily taken into care when the issues could have been resolved, they claim.

Access to the internet is a particular issue, doctors say, as parents are now able to look up potential diagnoses and fuel their fears that their child is ill.

Dr Alison Steele, consultant paediatrician at GOSH and officer for child protection and safeguarding at the RCPCH, said: "I think it's genuinely become more of an issue and part of the reason is Dr Google and social media. Social media and Google can be used very positively, it's just a tool if used wisely and appropriately, and most families would want to see what the internet has to say.

"But a normal approach is to bring the articles to your doctor to discuss it. That's perfectly normal and we see that all the time. I think sometimes social media and articles from not reputable sources can drive this and it's about how you gently challenge that and discuss it with families so they trust you primarily as the clinician and not what is written on social media. Sometimes it can be harmful and feeds into anxieties and erroneous beliefs."

Dr Danya Glaser, honorary consultant child and adolescent psychiatrist at GOSH, added: "Many parents aren't out to deceive us but have developed wrong beliefs about the child's health, helped by the internet and other support areas. They then become very anxious about the child in a way that harms the child."

Behaviour associated with FII includes caregivers exaggerating or lying about their child's symptoms, manipulating test results, or deliberately inducing symptoms of illness - such as poisoning the child with unnecessary medicine or other substances.

It is difficult to estimate how widespread FII is because many cases may go unreported or undetected, but it is thought to be rare.

The condition can involve children of all ages, but the most severe cases are usually associated with children under five.

In their new guidance, the RCPCH highlights that FII must not be a "diagnosis of exclusion" and parents who may be suffering from the condition should be treated with compassion.

It also notes that the focus should not be on the harm caused to the child rather than the "perceived severity or type of parental motivations, actions and behaviours".

Additionally, medical professionals should communicate with caregivers in a "non-confrontational manner", the guidance states.