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Anxiety about electronic data hacking: Predictors and relations with digital privacy protection behavior

Jon D. Elhai (Department of Psychology, University of Toledo, Toledo, Ohio, USA) (Department of Psychiatry, University of Toledo, Toledo, Ohio, USA)
Jason C. Levine (Department of Psychology, University of Toledo, Toledo, Ohio, USA)
Brian J. Hall (Department of Psychology, Global and Community Mental Health Research Group, University of Macau, Taipa, Macau) (Department of Health, Behavior and Society, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, Maryland, USA)

Internet Research

ISSN: 1066-2243

Article publication date: 5 June 2017




Despite concerns about digital privacy, little is known about emotional distress about data hacking and surveillance incidents. The purpose of this paper is to examine variables predicting anxiety about data hacking, and the role that such anxiety and other potentially important variables have in explaining the use of digital privacy protection behavior.


In total, 305 participants from an online labor market were sampled who frequently use the internet, surveyed about recent anxiety (using the Generalized Anxiety Disorder-7 scale (GAD-7)), anxiety about data hacking (GAD-7, in reference to data hacking), and issues of digital privacy: news exposure, perceived importance, self-efficacy, protection behavior, and previous hacking victimization.


Profession (information technology-related) moderated the symptom structure for recent anxiety, but not data hacking anxiety. Using structural equation modeling, prior hacking victimization predicted anxiety about hacking. Digital privacy protection behavior was related to hacking anxiety and privacy self-efficacy. Data hacking anxiety mediated relations between hacking victimization and privacy protection. Privacy self-efficacy mediated relations between news exposure to hacking incidents and privacy protection.

Research limitations/implications

Limitations include the self-report nature of the instruments, and use of a selective, non-random sample.

Practical implications

Results highlight knowledge, self-efficacy, and threat appraisal among IT managers in motivating better digital security practices.


This is the first study using a standardized instrument of anxiety to examine distress about hacking and predictors of digital privacy protection behavior.



Disclosures: the authors report no financial or other relationship relevant to the subject of this paper.

Conflicts of interest: the authors do not have any conflicts of interest with this study.

Declaration of interests: the author, Jon D. Elhai, earns a stipend from being an Associate Editor of the Journal of Anxiety Disorders. The author earns royalties for two books edited on posttraumatic stress disorder (with John Wiley and Sons). In total, 10 percent of the author’s salary is from an NIH grant where the author is Co-investigator on. Brian Hall and Jason Levine have no financial interests.


Elhai, J.D., Levine, J.C. and Hall, B.J. (2017), "Anxiety about electronic data hacking: Predictors and relations with digital privacy protection behavior", Internet Research, Vol. 27 No. 3, pp. 631-649.



Emerald Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2017, Emerald Publishing Limited

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