Online vigilance and goal conflict stress smartphone users out: An in-situ approach to digital stress

by Alicia Gilbert

Thesis Supervisor: dr. Susanne E. Baumgartner

The deep integration of smartphones into daily life makes online communication and content ubiquitous. Past research has demonstrated the potential of smartphones to elicit stress (i.e., digital stress; e.g., Hefner & Vorderer, 2017; Reinecke et al., 2017) – an individual’s reaction to an event perceived as exceeding coping resources and threatening well-being (Lazarus & Folkman, 1984). Stress represents a risk factor to well-being and health as it can increase the likelihood of both psychological and physiological conditions (Cohen, Janicki-Deverts, & Miller, 2007).

Smartphone use might be linked to stress for two reasons

(1) Smartphone use may manifest cognitively as online vigilance, that is, increased attention towards and awareness of the online sphere (Klimmt, Hefner, Reinecke, Rieger, & Vorderer, 2018; Reinecke et al., 2018). Past research found direct links between online vigilance and stress as well as stress outcomes such as reduced affective well-being (Johannes et al., 2020; Reinecke et al., 2018).

(2) Online vigilance resulting from smartphone use might indirectly increase the likelihood of stress reactions. Those high in online vigilance are likely to engage in online communication more frequently (i.e., communication load) and to use the smartphone simultaneously with other media (i.e., media multitasking; Freytag et al., 2019; Hefner & Vorderer, 2017). Both behaviours have been linked to stress (LaRose et al., 2014; Mai et al., 2015; Reinecke et al., 2017).

To advance knowledge on digital stress mechanisms, both the cognitive stressor of online vigilance and the behavioural mediators of communication load and media multitasking were investigated in their relationship with perceived stress.

Another objective was to identify boundary conditions of digital stress. While online vigilance, communication load, and media multitasking may not necessarily always lead to stress reactions, smartphone use situations that elicit goal conflict and frustration of the need for autonomy are likely to induce stress (Halfmann & Rieger, 2019; Hall & Baym, 2012; Meier, 2018). Therefore, it was investigated whether the relationships of online vigilance, communication load, and media multitasking with perceived stress are moderated by goal conflict and autonomy need dissatisfaction.


An experience sampling study was conducted to observe direct and indirect effects of online vigilance on perceived stress in-situ (N = 130). The hypotheses, study design, method and analysis rationale have been pre registered in the Open Science Framework (see here)

The study consisted of three parts:
(1) Day 1: Intake survey assessing trait variables

(2) Days 2-6: Signal-contingent experience sampling with the app ExpiWell
· 6 daily surveys assessing situational variables across 5 days
· Average response rate of 59% (M = 17.72, SD = 7.97), a total of 2,179 data points
· Smartphone use episodes reported in 65% of all cases, for 1,427 data points

(3) Day 7: Exit survey assessing control variables and allowing for reflection upon study participation

Figure 1. Results of confirmatory analysis

Notes. Bold lines represent (partially) confirmed hypotheses, dashed lines represent rejected hypotheses.

Results and implications

To account for the data structure of observations (level 1) nested within persons (level 2), multilevel modelling was applied. Results demonstrate that especially the cognitive salience of the online sphere places a heavy burden on smartphone users and can lead to stress. Salience as well as behavioural manifestations of online vigilance furthermore increase stress indirectly by driving the communication load that smartphone users engage in. Finally, goal conflict and autonomy need dissatisfaction moderate the influence of online vigilance and media multitasking on perceived stress. Therefore, the present research provides both strong evidence for the stress-predicting role of salience of the online sphere and introduces relevant boundary conditions to digital stress research. Overall, the study gathers highly ecological insights into stress as a negative outcome of permanent connectedness in everyday life. It can, thus, inform future endeavours aimed at increasing user literacy in navigating online media landscapes.

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