UF Psychologists: Computer Anxiety New Illness Of High-Tech Age

July 30, 1998

GAINESVILLE --- To the fear of math, flying and other stressful problems of modern high-tech life add 'computerphobia,' say University of Florida psychologists.

Just as a single bad experience can discourage people from balancing a checkbook, calculating a tip or doing other simple math tasks, it also can lead to computer anxiety, said Barbara Probert, a UF psychologist who has researched the fear of math and led confidence workshops on the subject for more than a decade.

"Even well-meaning kidding can do harm," said Edward Delgado-Romero, who, like Probert, is a professor at UF's counseling center and sees computer-anxious students. "If you have a bad experience on the computer and people start teasing, you could become known as the one who doesn't know computers and it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy."

Some of the techniques for dealing with math anxiety also work for computer anxiety, said Probert, who has found it may only take only one bad experience with a teacher or a struggle with a poorly written textbook to give children the lifelong impression they cannot do well in math.

"One of the most important steps is for people to re-examine their beliefs about themselves and become aware of any negative self-talk," Probert said. "The second step is to be as encouraging to themselves as they would be to a friend. They wouldn't say to a friend, "You're too stupid to learn.'"

Thinking and saying things such as 'I am not mechanically inclined' or 'I keep making mistakes,' reinforces fears and makes success more difficult, Probert said. Even the smartest people lose files on their computers, forget how to perform simple functions and have bad days, she said.

Just as it helps people who lack confidence about math to visualize themselves as being good with numbers, people anxious about computers can overcome their fears by picturing themselves as masters of software and hardware, Probert said.

Thinking of something you excel at and remembering all the practice and effort it took to become that way also is valuable, Delgado-Romero said. "If you're good at rollerblading, for example, you know that very few people are good at it the first day they try it," he said. "They usually fall down. Learning how to use the computer is no different than mastering any other skill."

Simplify the process by realizing that while it may be natural to want to understand how computers work, it's not necessary, Probert said. "Just as you don't have to know how your car works in order to drive it, you don't need to know how to program a computer in order to use it," she said.

In many ways, 'computerphobia' is a generational issue. Many of today's children grow up in homes and classrooms with computers, so they feel more comfortable with the technology than adults do, Probert said. Adults may find learning a new skill so daunting because they are accustomed to being competent in a wide variety of areas, she said.

Students sometimes adjust more quickly than their professors, Probert said. "The thing that amazes me is now we're as apt to get a student who is addicted to using computers and not interacting with real people enough as we are someone who is anxious about using computers," she said.

Some students may spend hours on the Internet or in chat rooms, which, if they happen to be in a relationship, often alienates their partner, Delgado-Romero said. "We've even seen cases of some people who are engaged over the Internet and the first time they met was after they were engaged," he said.

Still, Delgado-Romero said, computers have been a boon to many, such as international students. While living far away from home, these students can ease their homesickness with e-mail, which is much quicker than letters or phone calls and costs little or nothing, he said.
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Writer: Cathy Keen
Sources: Barbara Probert, Edward Delgado-Romero, (352) 392-1575
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University of Florida

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