Nicholas Bozionelos, a lecturer in psychology at Strathclyde University, said the findings were "surprising" and confound the expected view that young people introduced to computers at school or the home are undaunted by them and easily acquire the basic skills.
Mr Bozionelos studied a group of 50 18- to 23-year-olds in higher education who used computers for their course work and a group of 170 older students aged 30 to 43 at a business management school.
More than one-third of the younger group showed computer anxiety - avoidance behaviour, wariness and failure to experiment with computers and negative remarks - compared with one in five of the older group. Women were twice as likely to experience computer anxiety in the older group than men.
Around 3 per cent of the younger group suffered such acute anxiety that it could be classed as computer phobia, a condition widely recognised in the US, and as distressing and disabling as a fear of spiders. Symptoms include nausea and dizziness when confronted with a computer. In its extreme form computer phobia is estimated to cost US industry billions of dollars in lost productivity, and even sabotage of hardware by sufferers.
Mr Bozionelos told the BPS conference in Brighton yesterday that young people were aware that their future job prospects may depend on mastery of the computer, and this was an added source of stress. "New computer applications are arriving in the marketplace at an increasing rate. They see everything changing and they feel they are not able to keep up with the change.
"People in their thirties and forties know they may have to keep up with one or two applications in their work, and are comfortable with this," Mr Bozionelos said.
He said computer anxiety was linked with lack of confidence in mathematics ability, and better teaching of this subject would help. Earlier introductions to computers at school and adult courses which explain how computers function were more valuable than short, introductory packages, lasting one or two days, he said.
"Companies should be more careful when introducing computers and ensure they address the human issues. They usually decide the system . . . on technical issues, and then expect their employees to work with it."Reuse content