Raising digital parents

Your parents brought you into the digital world. Time to return the favor and raise them right as well.

How I taught my parents to use technology such as smartphones, and imparted some cybersecurity basics as well

In this post, I’m going to tell you a story about my parents, how they got into technology, and what it required from me. At the end of each section I’ll try to sum up the key points and give some advice to those seeking to bring their parents safely into the world of technology.

How I got started with technology

I remember the day I bought my first smartphone, an HP iPAQ, which ran on Windows Mobile 2003 SE. I brought it home and showed it to my parents. My dad tried it and said: It looks nice, but where’s the keypad? He then tried using it and said that he’d rather stick with his Nokia with its trusty number pad.

My parents were not digital natives, in fact, they only started using computers in the early 90s. I still remember my dad typing on theirs like he was using a typewriter. Our first family computer was a 100-MHz Pentium with 6MB of RAM, a 1.2GB hard disk, and an external 28.8-kbps modem. It ran Windows 3.11, which we later upgraded to Windows 95.

For as long as I can remember, it was always me doing the fixing whenever the computer had a problem. When we had Internet trouble, I was the one on the phone with tech support; when mIRC sputtered, I was the one connecting it to the right servers.

Through that, my interest in programming peaked when I was writing scripts for mIRC, a chat program we used before ICQ or MSN Messenger. Perhaps it’s because my parents bought the computer when I was still a child that I loved it and ended up working for a technology company.

From dumbphones to smartphones

One day, when both of my parents’ phones needed to be upgraded because of battery issues, my brother and I persuaded them to get BlackBerries. My brother was already using one. Dad’s first reaction after getting the phone was that he’d need toothpicks to use the keypad.

As my brother proceeded to teach both of my parents how to use their new phones, Dad remarked, “I think I have to go to college to learn how to use this.” Mum, on the other hand, was up to speed with the basic features after just a few days.

After a couple of years of using the BlackBerry — and with the advent of touch-screen phones with larger displays hitting the market — my brother and I decided it was time for our parents to get proper smartphones. Both of us pitched in to get them the Microsoft Lumia 525s that we thought were the most user-friendly smartphones at the time, as well as the least likely to pick up malware. Again, dad quipped that he would need to attend college to learn how to use the phone.

Not long after Dad got used to his smartphone, Microsoft announced that it was discontinuing support for the Lumia phones, which meant the apps my parents used frequently would no longer be getting updates. So, once again we had to upgrade the phones. This time, we bought them iPhones. As always, we taught them how to use the new phones, and both parents got used to these ones much more easily.

Lessons learned:

  • Pick the gadgets with the easiest interface.
  • Stick to one operating system if possible. Migrating from flip phone to BlackBerry, then to Windows Phone, then to iOS made our jobs significantly harder then they would’ve been if we’d gone for iOS — in the case of my parents; it won’t be right for everyone — from the start.
  • Pick a system that is unlikely to go anywhere in the near future. Of course, it’s hard to predict, but I think it’s unlikely that Google will stop developing Android or Apple will abandon iOS in the next five years. To be fair, back in the day both BlackBerry and Windows Phone were popular and seemed viable.
  • Pick a system you know and use. It’s significantly easier to explain things you already know — and you’ll be explaining a lot.

Raising digital parents

Dad, who is a dialysis patient, said that his treatments were boring, so we bought him an iPad because the interface was familiar from his iPhone use. Using his iPad, he signed up for some online writing classes.

He would call me and ask me how to download certain apps, and occasionally he’d ask how to send e-mails with attachments. I would guide him through the steps patiently because he once reminded me: “I spent 20 years raising you. You can spend 5 minutes to guide me through this,” when I told him that I was too busy.

Some parents may struggle with technology in silence — and they have their reasons — but for me that was a turning point. My parents raised me to be who I am today. Now it was my turn to help them, and technology was something I could help with.

How to keep your parents safe, remotely

Of course, my parents also knew very little about cybersecurity. Working in the cybersecurity industry, I knew a lot about the threats that were out there, and I decided to teach my parents safe cyber-hygiene, which is as necessary in modern life as it is hard to pick up for those who were not born with a keyboard in their hands.

It wasn’t easy, frankly, and explaining things that felt basic and obvious to me required a lot of time (thankfully, our encyclopedia helped), but eventually they started to pick things up.

At some point, my parents became pros at analyzing whether the WhatsApp message they got was real, if it was a phishing attempt, or if the links in the message were a cyberthreat.

Dad even started informing his friends about malware and phishing campaigns, although he faced the same frustrations I once did: His peers were quite bewildered about what he was talking about. They knew they needed antivirus protection for their computers — and that was it.

Lessons learned:

  • You’ll need to be patient and explain basic things to your parents. But do it. After all, they raised you and helped you become who you are.
  • Explaining cyber-hygiene to older folks is a must, and simply installing an antivirus utility isn’t enough. Start with the basics, but teach them how to spot threats, especially phishing (be it vishing, smishing or something else).
  • Start early and basic. New technology may feel overwhelming for them.

It’s all about patience

In the end, I realized that getting my parents used to technology and basic cybersecurity wasn’t too hard. It’s all about patience and taking time to explain to them how it works and how to avoid online threats.

But it’s more than teaching them computer safety tips — most important, it’s about teaching them how smart devices can help them with their daily lives. It took me a long time, but eventually, it worked and they grew to appreciate it even more.

I’m now teaching mum how to use the smart home devices I have installed in their home. She’s absolutely loving it!

Lessons learned:

  • People need to get comfortable with technology before they can love it and start exploring it on their own. It’s up to you to support the people in your life and guide them to this point — and beyond — because you’re a native in the digital world, and they are newcomers.