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Reactivity in measuring sensitive online behavior

Florian Keusch (University of Mannheim, Mannheim, Germany)
Ruben Bach (University of Mannheim, Mannheim, Germany)
Alexandru Cernat (The University of Manchester, Manchester, UK)

Internet Research

ISSN: 1066-2243

Article publication date: 9 August 2022

Issue publication date: 17 May 2023




Digital trace data provide new opportunities to study how individuals act and interact with others online. One advantage of this type of data is that it measures behavior in a less obtrusive way than surveys, potentially reducing measurement error. However, it is well documented that in observational studies, participants' awareness of being observed can change their behavior, especially when the behavior is considered sensitive. Very little is known regarding this effect in the online realm. Against this background, we studied whether people change their online behavior because digital trace data are being collected.


We analyzed data from a sample of 1,959 members of a German online panel who had consented to the collection of digital trace data about their online browsing and/or mobile app usage. To identify reactivity, we studied change over time in five types of sensitive online behavior.


We found that the frequency and duration with which individuals engage in sensitive behaviors online gradually increases during the first couple of days after the installation of a tracker, mainly individuals who extensively engage in sensitive behavior show this pattern of increase after installation and this change in behavior is limited to certain types of sensitive online behavior.


There is an increased interest in the use of digital trace data in the social sciences and our study is one of the first methodological contributions measuring reactivity in digital trace data measurement.



Funding: This work was supported by the European Union's Horizon 2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No 730998, “InGRID-2 – Integrating Research Infrastructure for European expertise on Inclusive Growth from data to policy”; German Research Foundation (DFG) under grant agreement No 139943784, “Collaborative Research Center SFB 884 Political Economy of Reforms (Project A8).


Keusch, F., Bach, R. and Cernat, A. (2023), "Reactivity in measuring sensitive online behavior", Internet Research, Vol. 33 No. 3, pp. 1031-1052.



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