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Number of parents pretending children are unwell after Googling symptoms is on rise, experts warn

Growing numbers of parents are pretending their children are ill after searching symptoms online, doctors have said.

Experts said ‘Doctor Google‘ and social media were fuelling an increase in parents who fabricate illnesses in their children. Some have kept their children off school, taken them to multiple doctors, put them through tests or even shaved their child’s head so it looks like they are undergoing chemotherapy.

Yesterday the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH) launched guidance about so-called fabricated or induced illness (FII) in children, previously known as Munchausen syndrome by proxy.

Cases arise when parents believe their child has an illness when they do not, or in some rare cases cause the illness themselves.

Experts said 'Doctor Google' and social media were fuelling an increase in parents who fabricate illnesses in their children. Stock image

Experts said 'Doctor Google' and social media were fuelling an increase in parents who fabricate illnesses in their children. Stock image

Experts said ‘Doctor Google’ and social media were fuelling an increase in parents who fabricate illnesses in their children. Stock image

Doctors say cases are becoming ‘a lot more common’ and that most paediatricians will have had a case on their books in the last two years.

The college has urged doctors to discuss the case with parents, whereas the old process ‘was to refer to social care early without involving the parents’.

Dr Danya Glaser, a psychiatrist at Great Ormond Street Hospital, said: ‘Fabricated or induced illness is a clinical situation in which a child is very likely to be harmed because the parents or the caregivers try, and sometimes succeed, to convince doctors that their child is unwell.

‘The caregivers or parents do this either because they have developed a mistaken belief and then misguided anxiety about their child, or they might actually deceive and gain something out of having an apparently sick child.’

Cases arise when parents believe their child has an illness when they do not, or in some rare cases cause the illness themselves. Stock image

Cases arise when parents believe their child has an illness when they do not, or in some rare cases cause the illness themselves. Stock image

Cases arise when parents believe their child has an illness when they do not, or in some rare cases cause the illness themselves. Stock image

Dr Glaser added: ‘The child is harmed by physical and emotional abuse or medical neglect in a number of different ways.

‘Their life is not normal, they undergo repeated investigations or treatments, they are taken to different doctors.

‘They might use aids which they don’t need, they become socially isolated… or the children begin to believe that they are really ill.’

She added that many parents are not out to deceive but have ‘erroneous beliefs’ that may have been helped by the internet. Dr Alison Steele, RCPCH child protection officer, said: ‘I do think that genuinely it has become more of an issue and I do think that part of the driver for that is Doctor Google and social media.

‘Occasionally someone will say the child’s got a cancer diagnosis to the world outside, and they’ll shave their head and they tell the school they have got cancer and actually that’s been a complete fabrication.’ 

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