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Surf the Web? Not a chance, the happily unwired say

By Chris Cobbs | Sentinel Staff Writer
Posted April 17, 2003

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Pen-and-ink fan.
Apr 16, 2003
Who's not connected.
Who's not connected. (ORLANDO SENTINEL)
Apr 16, 2003

Jean Williams can't program a VCR, and she only recently bought an answering machine. As for giving a computer a try, forget it.

The 69-year-old retired school principal is happily unwired.


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"I've got friends who've gone kicking and screaming into the age of technology," Williams said.

"But I consider the Internet something that would usurp time that I'd rather spend quilting, sewing, reading, playing bridge or having lunch with social contacts. I call a childhood girlfriend every Saturday at 8 a.m., and I like choosing pretty paper and funky stamps to send letters to friends."

Williams, who lives in Winter Garden, is not alone in communicating the old-fashioned way and steering clear of the Web.

A study released today by the Pew Internet and American Life Project, a Washington-based research firm, found that 42 percent of Americans said they don't use the Internet.

In a world that seems more wired by the day, Internet access is a given for more than half the population. What's more, about half of those who say they aren't online actually have a once-removed relationship with the Web through family, the report said.

But there is still a significant number, nearly 25 percent, who are considered "truly unconnected," with no access to the Web and no desire or financial ability to get connected.

Group of women shies away

Williams belongs to a group that's typical of the disconnected -- women older than 50 who, despite having friends or family who could help them with the complexities, don't see the Internet as having any place in their lives.

Another group of women older than 50 shies away from the Internet because they have limited income and education, and lack a family member or support group who could help.

"Fully 69 percent of non-Internet users have never been online, and more than half [59 percent] of the Truly Unconnected are women," wrote Amanda Lenhart, author of the Pew Report.

"They believe they would not benefit from using the Internet and don't want it."

The report's findings contradict a widely held assumption that Internet usage will expand until nearly everyone is connected, said Jorge Schement, Penn State University professor of communications and information policy.

"There are still 6 percent of the population who don't have a phone, and we won't reach 100 percent with the Internet, either," he said.

Resistance to Internet adoption stems from a lack of connectivity via modern phone equipment, fear of the Web's complexity and unwillingness to invest time and money in technology that may not be of much benefit, he said.

Disconnected men and women also live in a less media-saturated environment, doing without newspapers, cell phones and electronic organizers, Lenhart said

"Information is a less important part of their lives," she said. "There is also a fear of looking stupid and not being able to learn how to use a PC to go online."

Such fears are all too familiar to Tom Springall, 67, president of the SeniorNet Learning Center in downtown Orlando, where he has taught hundreds of senior men and women to use PCs and the Web in the past seven years.

"They come to us scared they will break the computer or thinking they're too old to learn," he said.

Many seniors have been given computers by their children and assured the machines will be easy.

"Well, it ain't easy," Springall said. "In our classes, we go very slowly and give individual attention."

Spouses differ on Web value

Senior spouses sometimes differ on the value of the Web. Joan Frankenberger, 66, of Winter Springs thinks it's a waste of time to stare at the Internet. If she needs to order flowers, she would rather reach for the phone.

"My husband gets a little annoyed I won't do e-mail, but I'd just rather do other things. My grandchildren ask me to come play on the computer, but I'd rather play board games with them."

The resistance to technology can be explained in simple terms, said Robert Ziller, a psychology professor at the University of Florida.

"There are people who are good at interpersonal, close-up communication," he said. "They're never going to enjoy e-mail, which is too impersonal. They don't want to give up that interpersonal contact."

Still, members of the over-50 generation who avoid the Web are missing access to valuable online information, such as health care, said Janan Smither, a psychology professor at the University of Central Florida.

Several years ago, she conducted a project to help functionally illiterate seniors in the Pine Hills section of Orange County learn to use computers.

They were afraid at first but slowly learned about computers and gained knowledge about diseases that strike seniors.

Seniors also could learn to use the Web -- given personalized teaching that makes the Internet relevant to their lives, Smither said.

"I taught my own mom, who is in her 80s," Smither said, "and now she surfs the world."

Chris Cobbs can be reached at or 407-420-5447.

Copyright 2003, Orlando Sentinel

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