Publications on Digital Overuse and on the Chilling Effects of Algorithmic Profiling

Digital overuse and subjective well-being in a digitized society

For most people in Switzerland, effective Internet use is essential for everyday life. But the constant abundance of digital communication and information options can also be difficult to manage. Not valid in all dimensions, but imo still a useful analogy: ICTs are like food. The question “Is internet / social media / smartphones / X use good or bad?” is like asking “Is eating good or bad?” It depends. What and how much? In which situation for which purpose? And: socio-economic status influences food as well as digital ICT use options and choices (digital inequality); and ultimately health and mental well-being.

Users may feel that they overall use the Internet too much, that it displaces other valued activities, or that it causes cognitive overload. Depending on how these indicators are combined, about a quarter to half of the surveyed users (ages 14–93) experienced digital overuse. This is not about addiction – the “correct” amount of use is not exogenously defined by e.g. psychiatrists. Perceived digital overuse depends entirely on the individual and context: one person’s overuse is another’s lifeblood. Also see this paper. Perceived digital overuse was strongly and negatively related to subjective “offline” well-being (positive affect, psychological functioning, and interpersonal relationships) in a structural equation model.

The conclusion is not that intense use is “bad,” but the overabundance of digital ICT options and social pressure to function digitally require new skills from individuals intent on maintaining high personal well-being. At the social level, the historically rapid diffusion of the Internet has produced a cultural delay: the modification of social norms that would protect against overuse is lagging behind technological push. Further research is needed to address the challenge of how individuals can maintain high well-being in a digital society – sometimes despite and sometimes thanks to the pervasiveness of digital ICTs in all life domains.

The chilling effects of algorithmic profiling: Mapping the issues

Chilling effects: knowing or believing you are being profiled by platforms, apps, search engines etc. can deter you from unrestricted information seeking online, self-expression on social media, or just selecting entertaining content. Algorithmic profiling by companies, by way of indirectly deterring individuals from uninhibited legitimate behaviors, is a potential threat to autonomy, creativity, and identity. This can occur in unnoticeably small steps towards a preemptive alignment with dominant social norms.

Although users often knowingly and willingly disclose potentially sensitive information (in addition to all the involuntarily disclosed data), automated inferences based on such data can deviate substantially from any human judgment or inferences thought possible by the user. In a “surveillance partnership,” the state can collect data about from corporations rather than from the users directly. A lot of shared data may not trigger an immediate reaction, but what happens in the future when context changes or data is passed on, cannot be evaluated.

This article highlights the importance of reflecting on the potential externalities of algorithmic profiling. It shows the need to frame corporate profiling as a matter of concern that goes beyond just privacy and data protection, but as a potential threat to individual autonomy.

Research Reports from the World Internet Project – Switzerland 2019 Published

Four new research reports on Internet use and related topics in Switzerland based on a representative sample including non-users have been published. Next to some basic figures on Internet use in Switzerland in 2019, we also explored issues such as privacy and chilling effects, users’ counter practices, social digital pressure, perceived risks, and e-voting. This research is part of the World Internet Project.

Mobile Internet reaches 80%, but considerable age gaps persist.
Perceived surveillance leads to self-censorship: 59% of Swiss Internet users experience chilling effects on information search at least sometimes.
Differing views on societal risks of Internet use between Swiss users and non-users, reliance on the Internet overall perceived as too high.

The Chilling Effects of Digital Surveillance

This is an adapted and translated presentation given following the Scientifica Warm-Up screening of Brazil (1985), 23 August 2019, KOSMOS, Zurich, Switzerland

In the following, I would like to present two aspects of today’s digital surveillance situation and a consequence of this with a link to current research. The first aspect is “blind” trust in technology; the second is inevitability. One consequence of this is a chilling effect. The first aspect is a not absolute, but very widespread blind trust in technology. Bureaucracy and dependence on technology are evident in the film [Brazil]: Toasters etc. don’t at all work as they should, but their adequacy is not questioned. There are forms and predefined processes for everything. Today the situation is not much different, there are just different technological devices. Essentially all domains of life centrally involve digital information and communication technologies and the outputs of these technologies appear in a cloak of objectivity, e.g., algorithmic recommendations. There are certainly many advantages, but when you realize that this technology does not always work, your own thinking and skills may no longer be prepared to solve the problem.

This belief in or dependence on technology goes hand in hand with the second aspect, inevitability. On the one hand, this is the inevitability of being surveilled. Even when one is aware of surveillance, there is often little one can do about it. Option 1 is participation without really, internally supporting the cause, and forms of passive resistance. This can lead to change, but also cynicism and fatalism. In the case of Sam Lowry, it is a mental escape into imagination, but he still has to deal with the real-life consequences. Option 2 would be physical escape from the system. For Sam it might have been possible, but today surveillance takes place globally and automated, in real time. A symbol for this is the logo of the launch of a satellite of the US National Reconnaissance Office, an octopus wrapping its arms around the globe, captioned “nothing is beyond our reach.” On the other hand, it is the inevitability of contributing to traceability. Theoretically it may be possible not to be filmed anywhere, or not to use the Internet at all. However, this means social exclusion, since almost every form of social life produces digital traces. What remains are strategies of self-protection, often with unknown effectiveness, such as using encrypted platforms for communication. An important point here is that this often requires specific skills and resources, which are tied to social inequalities.

Surveillance takes place, but the perception thereof is the motivator of individuals’ actions. In the film, the illusion of non-surveillance was no longer possible, and this is still partly possible today. The Department of Communication and Media Research, University of Zurich has collected current data on the user perspective. According to the World Internet Project – Switzerland, 38% of Internet users believe governments are surveilling their Internet use. What consequences does this have? If people believe or know that they are being surveilled—and we assume that most of them are not pursuing illegal behavior—this can deter them from exercising permitted or even socially desirable behavior without the state ever directly exerting power.

This brings me to a consequence of the current situation, chilling effects. The term has been around for some time, but in the context of digitization and somewhat generalized, a chilling effect is the deterrent effect of an actual or threatened intervention—which surveillance is—on legitimate behavior or fundamental rights, and this deterrence acts on third parties in the sense of anticipatory obedience (German: vorauseilender Gehorsam). How does this manifest itself in concrete terms? Jonathon Penney analyzed how web traffic to privacy-sensitive Wikipedia articles (e.g., Al Qaeda, Iraq, Car bomb, Nationalism, Fundamentalism) changed after the publicization of NSA surveillance practices in June 2013. A main finding was that traffic to these articles significantly and immediately declined following Edward Snowden’s revelations—although, of course, reading up on any of these topics is entirely legitimate citizen behavior.

The World Internet Project – Switzerland has collected survey data on this topic, which, although it cannot measure actual behavioral changes, nevertheless provide indications of a chilling effect. Survey participants who were Internet users were told to imagine that they were searching for information on a sensitive topic, for example, by using a search engine. Then, they were told that the possibility of surveillance deters some people from doing this and asked how often this also applied to them. 40% said never; but overall, nearly 60% experience this: 29% said that this happened to them rarely, sometimes (15%), often (9%), or always (5%). That is, in a digital society where much information is freely available, people report readily modifying their behavior despite an interest in certain topics, to avoid raising any suspicion, to conform to the arbitrariness of an imagined observer of their actions. As such, in a society where the surveilled use of digital information and communication technologies is de facto non-optional, chilling effects may be a subtle, long-term and cumulative risk for individual autonomy and collective action.


Büchi, M., Fosch Villaronga, E., Lutz, C., Tamò-Larrieux, A., Velidi, S., & Viljoen, S. (2019). Chilling Effects of Profiling Activities: Mapping the Issues. Retrieved from

Büchi, M., Fosch-Villaronga, E., Lutz, C., Tamò-Larrieux, A., Velidi, S., & Viljoen, S. (2019). The chilling effects of algorithmic profiling: Mapping the issues. Computer Law & Security Review, 1–15.

Büchi, M., Just, N., & Latzer, M. (2017). Caring is not enough: The importance of Internet skills for online privacy protection. Information, Communication & Society, 20(8), 1261–1278.

Gilliam, T. (1985). Brazil [Motion Picture]. United Kingdom: Embassy International Pictures.

Latzer, M., Büchi, M., Festic (in press). Internet und Politik in der Schweiz 2019 [The Internet and Politics in Switzerland 2019]. Reseaerch Report from the World Internet Project – Switzerland. Zurich, University of Zurich.

Micheli, M., Lutz, C., & Büchi, M. (2018). Digital footprints: An emerging dimension of digital inequality. Journal of Information, Communication and Ethics in Society, 16(3), 242–251.

Penney, J. W. (2016). Chilling Effects: Online Surveillance and Wikipedia Use. Berkeley Technology Law Journal, 31(1), 117–182.

Summary of Recent Publications

Older adults’ online information seeking and subjective well-being: The moderating role of Internet skills

The Internet and online information can be a valuable resource in the process of successful aging. Self-rated health was the strongest predictor of life satisfaction among older adults (sample of 643 Swiss Internet users, average age 68). Online information seeking (advice, medical, culture) had an additional positive effect comparable to that of income or not being single. And: this positive effect of information seeking increased with higher Internet skills.


From use to overuse: Digital inequality in the age of communication abundance

A negative side effect of the abundance of digital communication options in everyday life is subjective overuse: feelings of spending too much time online, doing too many things at once online, or losing time for more important things. Rapid Internet diffusion opened a “cultural delay”: We lack social norms that protect us from pressure from others online and set limits to digital media usage in daily life, but also govern offline social interactions while permanently having digital devices at our fingertips.

Our large online survey in Italy revealed that between 26% and 43% of respondents agreed or strongly agreed with statements about overuse. Slightly higher for women, much higher for younger users. Perceptions of digital overuse are virtually the same for different educational groups; however, higher education is associated with higher digital communication use and higher social digital pressure. In a structural equation model, perceiving more pressure to respond quickly to messages or expectations of being able to use various Internet applications (pressure) positively predicted the perception of doing too many things at once or spending too much time online (overuse).

Disparities in the ability to defend against the Internet’s collateral negative effects emerge as a new facet of digital inequality – one which is no longer linked to the scarcity of access and usage opportunities but to the management of their overabundance. Future research will have to address the causal impact of perceived digital overuse on measurable, socially relevant consequences such as learning outcomes, productivity at work, subjective well-being, or quality of social relationships. 

Podcast Episode on Perceived Digital Overuse

The Center for Information Technology, Society, and Law (ITSL) and the
Digital Society Initiative (DSI) at the University of Zurich started the “Breakfast of Ideas” podcast and event series that focuses on the challenges and opportunities connected to the digitization of society. Young scholars from different disciplines present their work in a short talk and Q&A. The podcast is hosted by Aurelia Tamò-Larrieux and Damian George with funding from the Graduate Campus.

In the first episode, I present our research on the perception of digital overuse and well-being and then discuss some questions with Aurelia.

[Listen to the podcast here]

One of the indicators used to assess perceived digital overuse in a representative survey of Swiss Internet users – >25% agree or strongly agree that they spend more time online than they would like. See for more findings.

[Slides from the talk at the Breakfast of Ideas]


2018 Articles on Digital Inequality

The Journal of Information, Communication and Ethics in Society published a special issue on “The Digital Divide at the Nexus of Social Justice, Media Justice, and Ethics” including a contribution by Marina Micheli, Christoph Lutz and myself. We develop the concept of the digital footprint as the aggregate of data derived from the digitally traceable behavior and online presence associated with an individual, and connect it with the debates on inequality, big data, algorithms, and privacy.

In an article published in the International Journal of Communication (open access), we focused on subjective social well-being as one specific quality of life indicator and outcome of Internet use, finding that the perception of digital belongingness directly increases social well-being, and Internet skills do so indirectly. Both pieces deal with the more general question of how digital technology relates to well-being.

We are currently following up on this line of research and added the perception of digital overuse to our framework of digital well-being (see figure below for a first result).

ggplot(ddui,aes(x=pdo.f,y=swb.f)) + geom_point() + geom_smooth(method = "loess", size = 1.0, color = "magenta")

World Internet Project Meeting in France

The 2018 World Internet Project Meeting started in Paris, hosted by Sciences Po, with a public conference day addressing the impact of the Internet on societal participation and cross-national perspectives. Organized and hosted by the French World Internet Project partner M@arsouin, the internal meeting continued in Brest, Brittany. The Swiss team presented new results on Internet use and well-being and contributed to the discussion on methodological challenges of longitudinal and comparative survey research.

La Penfeld and Tour Tanguy in Brest