Special Issue: Dark Sides of Digitalization
Ofir Turel, Hamed Qahri-Saremi, and Isaac Vaghefi
International Journal of Electronic Commerce,
Volume 25, Number 2, 2021, pp. 127-135.
Digitalization and digitization are two conceptually overlapping terms with some nuanced differences. Digitization refers to the process of converting analog streams of information into digital bits, and digitalization refers to the ways many domains of our private and social life are restructured by and around digital technology . In this special issue, our focus is on the dark sides of digitalization.
Individuals (i.e., the proliferation of digital technologies in the lives of individual users), organizations (i.e., digitalization of work and the business environment), and societies (i.e., the digital economy) has been enabled by digital technologies such as smartphones, social media, cloud-based systems, robots, and artificial intelligence. The adoption and use of these technologies have increasingly reshaped human’s perceptions, actions, and environments and have been associated with a myriad of benefits for individuals, organizations, and societies (e.g., connectivity, enhanced decision-making, increased productivity, and economic growth) [6, 8, 17]. Despite the conspicuous benefits, digitalization has been a revolution. Different from prior revolutions, such as the industrial revolution, or revolution in transportation (e.g., as manifested in changes in speeds of trains and cars), it has been aggressive, fast moving and status quo shattering. Just over the last 40 years, personal computers have increased in storage volume and processing speeds by huge magnitudes. Like other revolutions, though, the rise of digital technologies has started revealing a number of “dark sides” with grave impacts at the individual, organizational, and societal levels . While the bright sides of digitalization have received considerable scholarly attention, the literature on the dark sides of digitalization is in its early stages and in need of further research . This special issue sought to add to the bodies of work that gradually mitigate this gap.
At the individual level, the research on the dark side of digitalization engages with investigating its negative consequences and the side effects of using utilitarian and hedonic information technology (IT) artifacts for individual users. It acknowledges the existence of “bright sides” of IT but still strives to understand and find ways to mitigate negative, or “dark side” effects of IT on individuals, firms, and societies. So far, notable findings in this area have shed light on technology addiction [34, 46], problematic use of IT , technostress [4, 41, 42], general stress [45, 54], experience of ambivalence , negative health outcomes , security and privacy concerns [12, 14], online deviant behaviors such as cyberbullying [22, 23, 56], and the dark side of user-generated content [20, 32]. Adverse effects of digitalization of individuals can impact everyone, from children  and youth  to their parents . Similarly, the research on the dark side of the digitalization at the organizational level has discussed issues related to employees’ constant connectivity to work [26, 27], cyberloafing [2, 19], technology-related interruptions , deviant workplace behaviors , and diminished control over work [13, 25]. Likewise, research on the dark side of the digital economy has focused on the negative societal and economic impacts of digitalization such as loss or displacement of jobs because of automation  and challenges brought by e-commerce (e.g., higher rates of products returns because of unrealistic online reviews ) and digital platforms (e.g., market and regulatory failures because of the sharing economy [24, 28]). Given such findings, researchers have started questioning the ethicality of technology providers  and their legal responsibility .
While research on the dark sides of the digitalization is still in its nascent scholarly stage, the prevalence and significance of its negative impacts for individuals, organizations, and societies beg more research in this area. This is especially interesting in the realm of electronic commerce, where issues such as excessive buying , deception [15, 35], negative effects of websites on population health , and negative effects of web services on wages and markets  have propagated. As such, this special issue welcomed high-quality and novel research examining different aspects of the dark side of the digitalization.
Contents of the Special Issue
The objective of this special issue was to focus on the drivers, processes, and consequences of the dark side of digitalization as well as the potential strategies and ways for rectifying them. After three rounds of thorough reviews, four papers were accepted for this special issue.
The paper by Cadieux et al.  investigates the technostress phenomenon through a new practical lens, which considers recent technological developments that can present new types of stress especially for knowledge professionals, such as lawyers. The authors argue that the use of artificial intelligence may improve access to information and knowledge, yet increasing access to misleading information through the Internet may present a sense of insecurity in organizations and clients that was not captured by prior research. To address this gap, they use a multimethod qualitative–quantitate approach and conduct studies among lawyers practicing in the province of Quebec in Canada. Using a qualitative data set collected through interviews and thematic analysis, Cadieux et al. first identify eight dimensions of context-specific technostressors by adding new dimensions labeled as feelings of misinformation and insecurity induced by AI, to other known dimensions of technostress (or technostressors). Based on these findings, they form an instrument with 25 items that capture the range of dimensions associated with technostress, irrespective of the type of artifact being used. Using a series of exploratory and confirmatory factor analyses of survey data collected from 1,825 lawyers, they provide the psychometric evaluation of their proposed instrument and establish its reliability and validity. Finally, they assess the nomological validity of the instrument by findings support for their structural model that outlines the impact of reaction to technostressors on psychological distress. The findings of this paper can provide a foundation for important future work, for instance, by focusing on the effect of extensive information access and introduction of new technologies that support work on knowledge worker’s stress, as well as a better understanding of the physiological aspects of technostress.
The paper by Schmidt et al.  also examines technostress from another novel perspective, which is to study how adolescents (10–17 years old) cope with the stress induced by information and communication technology (ICT) use. The authors argue that although adolescent ICT users are at high risk of experiencing cognitive, physiological, and psychological outcomes of technostress, little is known about how they cope with the demands of ICT use to prevent these outcomes. Building on the transactional model of stress and the literature on technostress creators and coping, they put together a mixed-method qualitative–quantitative research design. In the first study, they use focus group sessions with 27 adolescents to identify 30 coping responses, which were classified into five major coping strategies labeled emotion regulation, knowledge acquisition, behavior adaptation, technology adaptation, and social rules. In study 2, they empirically evaluate the frequency of use of these coping responses by adolescents and factors predicting the activation of a potential response. Using 230 survey responses, they show that adolescents experience the highest intensity of technostress as a result of disclosure and unreliability, whereas complexity is the lowest technostress creator. Through subsequent exploratory factor analysis, four factors emerge that guide activations of these coping responses: avoid stressful ICT, follow the rules, use ICT consciously, and contain negative emotions. Finally, they show that the provided responses differ based on demographic characteristics (e.g., girls are more likely to avoid stressful ICT). Overall, the insights of the study extend our knowledge of coping responses to technostress by adolescents and how these responses are being activated based on ICT user characteristics. An interesting future avenue for this study is to extend this knowledge of specific adolescent behavior to broader population of ICT users.
The paper by Mylonopoulos and Theoharakis  looks at social media and excessive behaviors of users. It draws on the dual-system perspective to provide a theory-based explanation for recent evidence showing that habits, although they predict future use, are not necessarily direct predictors of addictive behaviors. The authors specifically draw on a dualistic theory of passions to argue that when individuals are passionate about a certain activity (e.g., Facebook use) that is in line with their identity, they internalize it and tend to intensively engage with it. Yet the passion can be harmonious or obsessive, depending on the conditions of internalization process. If people exercise autonomy and control, the passion is harmonious; however, when the activity is without any control, it leads to obsessive passion. Accordingly, they hypothesize that the effect of self-control and habit is under the influence of obsessive and harmonious passion, with negative mediation effect of the former and positive effect of the latter. Using data collected from 225 U.S. Facebook users, their results showed that while obsessive passion is a sufficient predictor of addiction-like symptoms, the deterring effect of self-control is mediated by both harmonious and obsessive passion as well as social media habit and use variables. The paper provides a novel and important extension of dual system theory, which was used in prior research to explain problematic use of social media [49, 50], by including the role of obsessive and harmonious passions. The paper provides insightful practical insights onto controlling dark side behaviors and for understanding and designing effective mechanisms toward mitigating their harms. These can be used by technology providers, policy makers, and treatment centers and are in contrast with increasingly intrusive practices in the institutionalized attention economy .
The paper by Liu et al.  is another effort toward remedying the problems of excessive social media use. In this paper, the authors focus on reduction of problematic social media use behaviors by arguing that prior literature on continuance or discontinuance does not provide sufficient knowledge of the process through which problematic behaviors are reduced. To make theoretical contribution toward understanding of future use reduction behaviors, this paper draws on cognitive dissonance theory to argue that individuals’ experience a state of dissonance from their problematic use that is perceived as a sense of guilt that predicts their future use reduction intentions, as a way to reduce the tension caused by cognitive dissonance. Furthermore, using elements of regulatory focus and neutralization theories, they theorize the role of injunctive norms (degree of compliance with peer norms) and neutralization (efforts to justify problematic behavior and dissonance) on guilt and use reduction intentions. They further theorize that these effects are moderated by one’s regulatory focus (promotion focused vs. prevention focused). Using data collected through a survey of 346 individuals, the authors find support for their research model and show that injunctive norms provide a stronger effect on guilt for prevention-focused individuals, as compared with the stronger effect of neutralization on guilt for those with prevention-focused orientation. Beside its theoretical merit, the paper provides a nuanced view of the different approaches that need to be pursued while helping users and particularly students reduce their dependence on social media use. Their findings could open interesting avenues for future research on nongeneric strategies for dealing and controlling dark side behaviors that takes into account individuals’ characteristics and differences.
Next Steps in Researching the Dark Side
If we use the iceberg metaphor (see Figure 1), this special issue revealed only a small portion of the tip of the iceberg of “dark sides of digitalization,” their predictors, and outcomes. The gaps that it covered are what we term “in-sight gaps.” These are important gaps, but covering them “patches” visible issues at the conscious level, hence the term “in-sight.” All topics covered in this special issue, and in most of the extant literature on dark side issues, focus on the tip of this iceberg. For example, studies that focus purely on survey data, whether qualitative or quantitative, assume that people are aware of their feelings and perceptions, and can self-report them. As a result, there is still much more work to be done in this area, which makes it fruitful for researchers interested in both advancing theory and making practical impacts on society. Thus, one future research direction is to extend what we know about the tip of the iceberg, that is, phenomena, attitudes, perceptions, emotions, and behaviors of which the users are aware. An interesting opportunity we see in this realm is the use of randomized controlled trials. Such experimental studies can help establish stronger causality between dark side predictors and outcomes, beyond the theory-based covariance most survey studies assume. Figure 1.
We also see a ripe opportunity at the bottom of the iceberg for moving forward. This part of the iceberg metaphorically represents what is not in sight, and in the real domain, it captures subconscious, physiological, and automatic processes. While several studies have started tapping into people’s subconscious processes in the context of information systems use [37, 38, 39], and to relevant physiological brain responses  and changes , they are still rare compared with the relatively prevalent survey-based studies. This is understandable, given the difficulty of using tools for tapping the bottom of the iceberg, below water level (i.e., subconscious level). Nevertheless, we see great opportunities in expanding insights about the sub-water-level part of the iceberg, because (1) it is larger than the tip of the iceberg (most processes in human thinking and acting are done at the subconscious level ), and (2) it is relatively underexplored. Given that most decision processes are done subconsciously , we call for further research in this area.
Overall, we see great promise in the published papers on the dark sides of digitization in this special issue and elsewhere, and we call for more research on the above-water and below-water parts of the iceberg.
This special issue would not have succeeded without the generous support of Vladimir Zwass, the Editor-in-Chief of International Journal of Electronic Commerce, the Associate Editors, and the anonymous reviewers, to whom we are grateful. The following Associate Editors (in alphabetical order) graciously contributed to the success of this special issue: Shamel Addas (Queen University, Canada), Tommy Chan (Northumbria University Newcastle, UK), Ioanna Constantiou (Copenhagen Business School, Denmark), John D’Arcy (University of Delaware, USA), Antonia Koester (University of Potsdam, Germany), Hanna Krasnova (University of Potsdam, Germany), Zach W. Y. Lee (Durham University, UK), Christin Matt (University of Bern, Switzerland), Gregory Moody (University of Nevada, Las Vegas, USA), Azadeh Savoli (IESEG School of Management, France), Alexander Serenko (Ontario Institute of Technology, Canada), and Stefan Tams (HEC Montreal, Canada)
OFIR TUREL is a professor of information systems and decision sciences at California State University, Fullerton, and scholar in residence at the Department of Psychology, University of Southern California. His research interests include a broad range of behavioral, bio-physiological, and managerial issues related to information systems and technologies. He has published more than 150 journal papers in business, research methods, psychology, psychiatry, and medical journals, including such IS journals as MIS Quarterly, Journal of Management Information Systems, MIT Sloan Management Review, Journal of the AIS, European Journal of Information Systems, and Communications of the ACM. Dr. Turel’s research has been featured in numerous media outlets, including TV, radio, podcasts, and newspapers such as the Wall Street Journal, CBC, CNET, Times Higher Education, Rolling Stone, and PBS.
HAMED QAHRI-SAREMI is an assistant professor of information systems at the College of Computing and Digital Media, DePaul University. He holds a Ph.D. in business administration with a concentration on information systems from the DeGroote School of Business, McMaster University. His research interests lie at the intersection of social and technological systems, including computer-mediated communications, electronic word of mouth, and online deviant behaviors. Dr. Qahri-Saremi’s papers have appeared in such journals as Journal of Management Information Systems, Journal of Strategic Information Systems, Information & Management, New Media & Society, and European Financial Review and have been presented at various conferences. He has served in various capacities as an associate editor, a track chair, and a mini-track chair for a number of journals and conferences in information systems.
ISAAC VAGHEFI is an assistant professor of information systems at Pace University–New York. He holds a Ph.D. in business administration–information systems from McGill University. His research primarily focuses on the negative aspects of technology use, especially technology addictions, as well as use of technology in healthcare. His papers have been published in Communications of the AIS, Journal of the American Medical Informatics Association, The DATA BASE for Advances in Information Systems,, Information Systems Journal, and others and were presented at premier conferences of information systems and management disciplines. He has served as served as mini-track co-chair and associate editor for a number of academic conferences (ICIS, HICSS, and AMCIS). His work has been featured in such media outlets as the Washington Post, PBS, CBS, Fox News, Huffington Post, and Men’s Health.