Presentation: Older people and computer anxiety

Presentation: Older people and computer anxiety

Older people and computer anxiety: Going beyond assumptions

Paper presented by Mireia Fernández-Ardèvol and Loredana Ivan at the Fifth ECREA European Communication Conference 2014


In this paper we critically revise research on computer anxiety. By focusing mainly on older people, our approach questions whether current analyses consider the sociological dimension of the phenomenon. The aim is to propose a framework in which computer anxiety is also related to individuals’ media ecology in particular and to individuals’ everyday practices in general. This includes social aspects, as the characteristics and the role of the personal network and the social support. Computer anxiety is the emotional tendency of an individual to be uneasy, fearful, and resistant to the current or future use of computers. Research is interested in explaining factors that cause computer anxiety, as well as its consequences and its correlates. We indentify, however, two gaps in the current literature. First, personal predictors constitute the main focus in the analysis of the determinants of computer anxiety, whereas social dimensions are under researched. For instance, there is limited evidence on the relationship between computer anxiety and the expectations, or normative influence, coming from the individuals’ social network. Second, the negative consequences of computer anxiety are overestimated, whereas positive aspects are not considered. For example, a given level of computer anxiety could be more functional than dysfunctional in increasing individual motivation for overcoming the fear of using a particular device or application.

Most articles focusing on negative outputs are based on a normative construction: they assume an almost linear relationship between computer anxiety and technology adoption. Despite this, common evidence suggests computer anxiety appears mostly in the first steps of the person-device interaction and could diminish once the individual gets familiar with the device. Articles also refer to high levels of computer anxiety that are dysfunctional for individuals causing them to abandon the use of the device, but they do not discuss to which extent modest levels of computer anxiety could have a different effect on ICT use. Studies report that computer anxiety increases with age, and among less experienced and less frequent users. Common narratives on ageing depict old age as a period of decline, thus it is frequent that techno-optimistic approaches implicitly consider older people as ‘victims’, and computers as their potential ‘saviors’ (Richardson, Zorn & Weaver, 2011). Training, in this context, is seen as a key element for overcoming difficulties and reducing older individuals’ computer anxiety.

However, other discourses oppose this idea arguing that personal interests and needs are more important than training when deciding on ICT use (i.e. Bennett, 2011). These critical approaches, which put into question the way older people are considered in current human-computer interaction studies, constitute our starting point for the literature review. We also consider the importance of longitudinal studies to better capture the evolution of causes and consequences of computer anxiety.

Bennett, J. (2011). Online communities and the activation, motivation and integration of persons aged 60 and older. A literature review. Version 1.1 (p. 36).
Richardson, M., Zorn, T. E., Weaver, C. K. (2011). Older people and new communication technologies. Narratives from the literature. In C. T. Salmon (Ed.), Communication Yearbook 35 (pp. 121-154). Taylor & Francis: London, United Kingdom.


Image by Friedemann W.-W. under a CC BY-NC 2.0 license