Research Article: Permanently online and permanently connected: Development and validation of the Online Vigilance Scale

Date Published: October 25, 2018

Publisher: Public Library of Science

Author(s): Leonard Reinecke, Christoph Klimmt, Adrian Meier, Sabine Reich, Dorothée Hefner, Katharina Knop-Huelss, Diana Rieger, Peter Vorderer, Yasser Khazaal.


Smartphones and other mobile devices have fundamentally changed patterns of Internet use in everyday life by making online access constantly available. The present paper offers a theoretical explication and empirical assessment of the concept of online vigilance, referring to users’ permanent cognitive orientation towards online content and communication as well as their disposition to exploit these options constantly. Based on four studies, a validated and reliable self-report measure of online vigilance was developed. In combination, the results suggest that the Online Vigilance Scale (OVS) shows a stable factor structure in various contexts and user populations and provides future work in communication, psychology, and other social sciences with a new measure of the individual cognitive orientation towards ubiquitous online communication.

Partial Text

Around the world, the proliferation of mobile Internet technologies–wireless online connections and portable devices such as smartphones–is driving fundamental changes in how people practice and think about communication in their daily lives [1]. It is only a few years ago that connecting to the Internet, using online media, and communicating with others via technology were actions that required conscious planning, mental effort, and specific arrangements, such as sitting down in front of a computer. Mobile Internet technologies and online devices have changed this situation dramatically: Being involved in mediated communication and/or maintaining availability to communicate is now almost the default situation for many people and basically taken for granted most of the day [2,3]. In contrast, abstaining from media use and communication access now appears to be a quite exotic action that requires unusual intentions and conscious planning and may even trigger negative affect and anxiety (e.g., [4,5]). The common assumption many users of smartphones and other mobile online devices seem to hold is that online content and communication are accessible and meaningful tools of goal attainment and need satisfaction at virtually any time and any place. They are living in a media-saturated word that enables them to be “permanently online and permanently connected” (POPC) [6–8].

The main aim of Study 1 was to develop an initial item pool measuring the three dimensions of online vigilance (salience, reactibility, and monitoring) and to select items for our Online Vigilance Scale (OVS) based on an empirical exploration of the psychometric quality of the developed items. We conceptualize and measure online vigilance as a channel-independent construct. That is, online vigilance does not require individuals to use specific online services (e.g., Facebook, WhatsApp) or devices (e.g., smartphone, tablet, desktop computer). This way, our measure focuses on the cognitive, attentional, and motivational dimensions of online vigilance without confounding these processes with the specific affordances of communication technology or content providers. This bears the benefit that the scale will still be applicable in future technological environments, as both the platforms and the technical devices used to access online content are likely to change continuously. However, to explore the factor structure and reliability of our newly developed measure in a population of users that are particularly likely to show high levels of online vigilance in the context of the current online usage practices, Study 1 used a sample of smartphone users for item selection.

Study 2 aimed at extending the findings of Study 1 by confirming the factor structure of the Online Vigilance Scale in an independent sample of general Internet users. Additionally, Study 2 aimed at a first exploration of the relationship between the three sub-dimensions of online vigilance and different indicators of Internet use behavior. We expected to find significant positive correlations between the three sub-dimensions of online vigilance, general and mobile Internet use, the use of different forms of online-communication (e.g., email, social media, and instant messenger use), as well as the use of different forms of online content (e.g., information, entertainment, etc.). As online vigilance represents the individual tendency to think about, respond to, or check for online content irrespective of other, potentially conflicting primary activities, we also anticipated to find a positive correlation between our Online Vigilance Scale and measures of Internet multitasking, that is, the concurrent use of online services and other activities (e.g., [69]).

While Study 1 and Study 2 provide considerable support for our general conceptualization of online vigilance as well as the reliability of our newly developed measure, the statistical relationship between the three facets of online vigilance and related constructs as well as the temporal stability of online vigilance is an open question. As discussed above, the construct of online vigilance is related to but distinct from the concept of media habits. Study 3 thus tested the statistical relationship between online vigilance and Internet and smartphone habits to provide first evidence of the discriminant validity of the Online Vigilance Scale. Furthermore, previous research provides preliminary evidence of potential drivers and outcomes of online vigilance. A number of studies have identified the fear of missing out on gratifying social events and experiences (FOMO) as a central driver of the use of and cognitive preoccupation with social media and online communication (e.g., [53,62]). A growing body of research also suggests that a POPC lifestyle may result in substantial levels of ‘digital stress’ (e.g., [62,79]). In Study 3, we thus explored the relationship between online vigilance, FOMO, and stress and expected to find positive correlations between the three variables as an indicator of convergent validity of the Online Vigilance Scale. Finally, Study 3 also aimed at providing initial evidence of the conceptual differences between online vigilance and Internet addiction. In contrast to Internet addiction, which is defined by significant functional impairment resulting from pathological usage patterns, online vigilance should also have a positive, functional side and the potential to show beneficial effects on users’ well-being (see Table 1). Specifically, being vigilant towards one’s online platforms should facilitate mediated social interaction and connectedness to loved ones and peers in everyday life [22,23,41], whereas Internet addiction is frequently associated with social isolation and lower quality of social interactions [58]. Accordingly, we would expect individuals with higher online vigilance to also report higher satisfaction of their need for relatedness in online communication [80].

In addition to the temporal stability demonstrated in Study 3, another important factor in the conceptualization and measurement of online vigilance is the aspect of permanence in the users‘ mindset: Users who are truly permanently online and permanently connected should also score higher in situational measures of online vigilance compared to users who are only at certain times highly engaged with their smartphone and their online sphere, or who do not hold cognitive routines of frequent online connection at all. In other words, our person-level measure of an online vigilance disposition should be a significant predictor of state variations in online vigilance. In order to validate the developed scale further, Study 4 was designed to identify the instrument’s capability to reflect individual differences in state online vigilance over the course of a ‘normal’ day.

Using mobile Internet devices and accessing relevant others, media, and services online anytime and anywhere has become ‘natural’ for many people across the globe. With online vigilance, we propose a new concept that captures the cognitive, attentional, and motivational tendencies that frequent and multi-purpose use of mobile online devices is likely to bring about. Salience of the online world, reactibility to communication dynamics emerging from one’s online sphere, and monitoring of the online environment are the dimensions that jointly describe the individual predispositions shaped by the POPC environment [8]. Based on four studies with different samples and methodologies, a robust, validated, reliable, and economical self-report measure of this communicational disposition is now available. In combination, the four studies suggest that the Online Vigilance Scale (OVS) shows a stable factor structure in various contexts and user populations (Studies 1–3). Our findings clearly support the notion of online vigilance as an individual difference variable with considerable temporal stability (Study 3) and the ability to explain variance in state measures of online vigilance (Study 4).