From a purely psychological point of view, is there really any such thing as a clinically diagnosable condition called “technophobia”? After all, a number of articles and blog offerings on the Internet that purport to discuss technophobia (many of which even include that term in their titles) actually turn out to be straightforward discussions of how to effectively provide technical training to just about anybody (Bell, 2006; Fox, 2007; Goldsborough, 2003; Jencius, 2009). But a brief look at the work of some serious practitioners like M. J. Brosnan (2006) and the renowned psychologist team of Rosen and Weil (1990; 1995) should be enough to convince anyone that “technophobia” is more than just an empty hyped-up term.
The work of all three of these researchers spans several decades, so they have had time to rework and refine their research methodologies, as well as undertake longitudinal studies. Brosnan (2006) concludes that 1 in 20 people suffer from an extreme clinical technophobia, which entails measurable involuntary physical manifestations of anxiety similar to those demonstrated with traditional phobias, like fear of spiders. However, both Brosnan and the team of Rosen and Weil do not limit their definition of technophobia to just this more extremely-afflicted 5% of the population. Brosnan reports that fully one in three of the subjects he studied suffer from some aspect of technophobia (2006), while Rosen similarly concludes that “approximately one-fourth to one-third of all people can be classified as ‘technophobic’” (1993, p. 28). Technophobia in this significant portion of the population is defined as “an irrational anticipation of fear evoked by the thought of using (or actually using) computers, the effects of which result in avoiding, or minimising, computer usage” (Brosnan, 2006, p. 1081).
Importantly, in addition to effectively defining technophobia and showing the scope of the problem, the work of these serious researchers also blows away our stereotypes regarding who tends to be a technophobe. It is not gender-specific; it is not age-specific; it is not just another form of math anxiety; and it is not just limited to “high strung” individuals who display other kinds of phobias (Rosen, 1993).
While these researchers make the case that technophobia is “a real phenomenon” (Brosnan, 2006, p. 1081) that has similarities to other phobias, I would go further to posit that technophobia has some characteristics that make it decidedly different and potentially more troubling than other phobias. To frame an example, a technophobic teacher is obviously aware of the fact that information technologies have become a vital fixture on the modern educational landscape. They also surely realize that their fear of interacting with these technologies could stand as a major impediment to the advancement of their career, and it could perhaps reasonably be seen as an existential threat to their career itself. This realization could lead to new, quite rational fears of career failure flowing from their technophobia, with each fear exacerbating the other in a kind of negative feedback loop of dread, loathing, anger, and despair. This picture of technophobia is not at all analogous to something like “spider phobia”.
The rigorous researchers mentioned thus far all share the same background: they are psychologists. In the methodologies that they have constructed, they use the tools of the psychologist to fix what they have defined as a psychological problem. In fact, Rosen and Weil mince no words; they flatly state “Before computer education can truly become the fourth ‘r,’ school administrators must become cognizant of the massive numbers of technophobic teachers in their schools and take steps to provide psychological assistance to eliminate this psychologically-based problem [italics mine]” (Rosen and Weil, 1995, p. 28). Indeed, the work of these researchers has shown that purely psychologically oriented stress-reduction therapies (such as those offered to treat just about any kind of phobia) offer the prospect of largely eliminating technophobic tendencies in people. If we were to take this as the final word, then this paper would end here, instructing technophobes to enroll in a program like the ones put in place by Brosnan (2006) or Rosen (1988). However, it could be worthwhile to speculate upon specific causes of technophobia, not from a psychological point of view, but from an educational technology point of view, and then see whether by effectively defining those causes we might be led to remedies that might be available to a technical trainer or mentor, rather than to a psychologist.
Another bit of dogma shared by many of the sources that I have consulted in my research is that computer averse individuals seem to believe that if they push a wrong button that they will somehow do some kind of damage. What is amazing to me is that these sources are seemingly unanimous in their appraisal that this cannot happen, and that computer averse trainees should be carefully taught this (Harrison, 2000; Goldsborough, 2003; Bell, 2006). But how many of these afflicted individuals actually have had earlier, formative experiences when they “pushed a button” and valuable data or documents that they may have spent hours, or even days working to carefully create were either unintentionally deleted, overlaid, or misplaced somewhere deep in the file structures of a computer? Okay, so maybe this did not result in some piece of hardware or operating system software being physically damaged, but such a deletion or corruption of data can sometimes do more damage to an individual or institution than if somebody had walked in with a sledge hammer and started smashing every piece of equipment they could find.
An additional “bad introduction” that a person can receive to computers is suggested in the research of Bertozzi and Lee (2007), who found a positive correlation between playing with computers and “feeling comfortable with and competent in terms of computer technology” (Bertozzi and Lee, 2007, p. 200). This correlation strongly suggests that the inverse situation is also true: if computer use is presented to an individual as representing only one onerous task after another to trudge through, it is no surprise that the computer will be avoided, if not feared.
One more root cause of computer aversion is hinted at in the work of Mark Lecher, who offers that “adequate and timely support” should be made available to the recovering technophobe (Lecher, 2004, p. 173). Obviously, proper support services are needed by all technology users, but the absence of adequate support during a person’s early encounters with technology could certainly set up an understandable long-standing aversion to computer usage. This particular brand of technophobia is reflected in this quote from a technology consultant regarding those who are reluctant to adopt interactive whiteboard technology: “A lot [of teachers] still like chalk, and the reason is that they know when they walk into a classroom that it's going to work. With a whiteboard they're never totally certain” (Zind, 2008).
Potential Remedies for Computer Aversion
Given the causes of computer aversion laid out above, the most obvious palliative that comes to mind is simply honesty. One of the most useful treatises that I have run across is by Lucy Harrison, a reference librarian with considerable experience dealing with computerphobic patrons needing to use her library’s computers to search for resources. Like several of the other authors I encountered, she makes the point that falsely idealizing a complex (or poorly-designed) technology will not be of ultimate benefit to the computer averse trainee (Harrison, 2000). In my personal experience in my over twenty years of training adults in uses of various technologies, I find that computer averse individuals are very relieved to hear someone they perceive as a capable technophile explain to them that they are right to be confused by certain obscure features of a poorly designed piece of software or hardware. And the computer averse users that I have worked with are also especially grateful to get advice on how to avoid loss of data. This topic is not something to be left for the latter part of a training sequence; its inclusion early on can build a user’s confidence to be able to use a technology without “pushing the wrong buttons” and “breaking something”.
Beyond honesty, I find that computer averse individuals appreciate having somebody who will be their staunch advocate when necessary, either when hardware or software is not up to snuff, or when proper support is lacking. In any institution, users of any given technology should only be expected to use it if they have reasonable assurance that they will be supported in the use of the technology and will receive reasonably quick responses and resolutions when and if the technology breaks down. If such an effective support infrastructure is not in place, then a teacher has every right, in some cases perhaps even a responsibility, to refuse to use the technology, and to fall back to more reliable alternatives.
Speaking of proper infrastructure, a review of a recent New York Times article, regarding the failure of one-to-one computing initiatives in some schools (Hu, 2007), brings to mind some basic project management skills that can be brought to bear to help the technologically averse adapt to changes brought about by the introduction of new technologies. New technologies need to be introduced incrementally, if at all possible, to avoid throwing anyone (particularly the computer averse) into the “deep end”. Surely a big, underlying fear among technophobic teachers is that new technologies will usurp the tried-and-true teaching methodologies that they have worked hard (sometimes for decades) to develop. One additional cause of computer aversion that we see in many teachers may come from their past negative experiences of “new technologies” being foisted upon them without first getting proper buy-in, without providing proper training, or without effective integration into curriculum and existing class routines.
But obviously, effective training for the technophobic teacher should not consist just of mutual gripe sessions about the shortcomings of technology, nor solely in lobbying on behalf of the teacher to get proper support and management into place. It primarily needs to focus on listening to the individual, to gain some insights as to why they have aversions toward working with a specific technology. In the words of librarian Lucie Harrison, we “should treat such concerns seriously, and not brush them off by saying, rather arrogantly, how easy it all really is” (Harrison, 2000, p. 35). In my work with any trainee (but particularly the computer averse), I like to find at least one thing that they would really like to be able to accomplish with the technology, and then find a way to very quickly either partially or completely fulfill that desire. To me, the speed of getting there is critical. The idea is to get a quick payoff, to offset perceived negatives with a readily attainable positive. In an interactive whiteboard training that I did with a computer averse teacher at the beginning of this school year, the quick payoff was simply the ability to write and erase with the stylus on the whiteboard. It doesn’t have to be a big thing, but rather something that the technophobe can immediately hold up to themselves and say “wow, I can do this”, preferably being able to add, “and this is really fun!” A little bit of “fun” can bring many barriers tumbling down (Bertozzi & Lee, 2007).
The ultimate goal is to replace dread with enthusiasm, to banish “I’m so stupid when it comes to computers” and instead summon up “I finally figured out how to get this to work”. As Rosen pointed out, technophobia is a psychological problem that can be dealt with by effectively addressing the underlying roots of the aversion. It is when some of those underlying roots lie outside of the individual, and are instead embodied in poorly designed software or training, in inadequate support infrastructures, in poorly planned implementations of new technologies, or simply in an overwhelming amount of information leaving teachers dazed and confused – it is in such situations that the educational technologist, rather than the psychologist, must aggressively step in, take the bull by the horns, and work to set things right.
Bell, M. (2006, November). Encouraging Technophobes: Old Dogs CAN Learn New Tricks. MultiMedia & Internet@Schools, 13(6), 36-38. Retrieved April 7, 2009, from Computers & Applied Sciences Complete database.
Bertozzi, E., & Lee, S. (2007). Not Just Fun and Games: Digital Play, Gender and Attitudes Towards Technology. . (pp. 179-204). Organization for Research on Women & Communication. Retrieved April 6, 2009, from Communication & Mass Media Complete database.
Brosnan, M., & Thorpe, S. (2006, November). An evaluation of two clinically-derived treatments for technophobia. Computers in Human Behavior, 22(6), 1080-1095. Retrieved April 6, 2009, doi:10.1016/j.chb.2006.02.001
Fox, C. (2007, July). From Technophobes to Tech Believers. T H E Journal, 34(7), 36-37. Retrieved April 6, 2009, from Computers & Applied Sciences Complete database.
Goldsborough, R. (2002, March). Personal Computing: Overcoming Fear of PCs. Link-Up, 19(2), 7. Retrieved April 6, 2009, from Computers & Applied Sciences Complete database.
Goldsborough, R. (2003, July 7). Taming Technology Fears. Community College Week, 15(24), 19-19. Retrieved April 6, 2009, from Education Research Complete database.
Gurcan-Namlu, A. (2002, May). Technophobia and its Factors: A Study On Teacher Candidates. Educational Sciences: Theory & Practice, 2(1), 244. Retrieved April 6, 2009, from Education Research Complete database.
Harrison, L. (2000, January). Stress Relief: Help for the Technophobic Patron from the Reference Desk. Reference Librarian, 33(69/70), 31. Retrieved April 6, 2009, from Education Research Complete database.
Hemby, K. (1998). The Impact of Keyboarding Skill on Computer Anxiety in End Users. Retrieved in April 9, 2009 from: http://www.osra.org/itlpj/hemby.PDF
Hu, W. (2007, May 4). Seeing No Progress, Some Schools Drop Laptops. New York Times website. Retrieved April 6, 2009, from http://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/04/education/04laptop.html
Jencius, M. (2009, January). You say you want a resolution. Counseling Today, 51(7), 26-27. Retrieved April 6, 2009, from Education Research Complete database.
Karlonia.com (2007, June 5). Causes of Technophobia: Why Some People Refuse to Learn About Computers. Retrieved on April 9, 2009 from: http://www.karlonia.com/2007/06/05/causes-of-technophobia-why-some-people-refuse-to-learn-about-computers/
Lecher, M. (2004, June 1). Technophobes Teaching with Technology. Association of Small Computer Users in Education (ASCUE), (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED490116) Retrieved April 7, 2009, from ERIC database.
Rosen, L., & California State Univ., D. (1988, January 1). A Model Program for Computerphobia Reduction. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. ED318466) Retrieved April 7, 2009, from ERIC database.
Rosen, L., & Others, A. (1993, March 1). Treating Technophobia: A Longitudinal Evaluation of the Computerphobia Reduction Program. Computers in Human Behavior, 9(1), 27-50. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. EJ456183) Retrieved April 7, 2009, from ERIC database.
Rosen, L. D., & Weil, M. M. (1990). Computers, classroom instruction, and the computerphobic university student. Collegiate Microcomputer, 8, 275-283.
Rosen, L., & Weil, M. (1995, March 1). Computer Availability, Computer Experience and Technophobia among Public School Teachers. Computers in Human Behavior, 11(1), 9-31. (ERIC Document Reproduction Service No. EJ496618) Retrieved April 7, 2009, from ERIC database.
Zind, T. (2008, July 17). Dealing With Technophobes. Retrieved on April 9, 2009 from: http://www.avtechnologyonline.com/article/27244.aspx