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Last Updated: Monday, 10 January, 2005, 12:12 GMT
IT support for your parents
Dot.life - how technology changes us
By Jonathan Duffy
BBC News Magazine

Really, how wired up are you?

Gates, Einstein, Clippy
Gates, Einstein, Clippy - the perfect child
You're wedded to a computer screen for much of the day, you e-mail and browse the web without a second thought and texting, well, it's just part of everyday life.

To your peers, you're no more technologically savvy than the next person, but to your parents you are Bill Gates, Albert Einstein and Mr Clippy rolled into one.

Of those who returned to the family roost for Christmas, many will have found the normal festive activities peppered with a rather less traditional commitment: fixing mum or dad's computer.

Forget those illusions you may still harbour about being mummy or daddy's little poppet. For those whose parents have opted into the 21st Century by investing in a computer, likely as not, you have become IT Support.

Gina Trapani, a freelance web developer from New York, is just one of this burgeoning army of familial tech support volunteers. She visits her mother-in-law in North Carolina about three times a year and always ends up attending to her creaking four-year-old PC.

"Usually it's only a couple of hours. This past year, however, she upgraded from a dial-up connection to a cable modem, and the machine got infected badly with spyware," says Gina, 29.

In many areas my dad knows more than me because he actually does his research
32-year-old journalist Paula
Her 56-year-old mother-in-law, Becky Bailey, "usually saves up her questions and problems for when we visit". Gina tries to nip future problems in the bud.

"The trip before last I set up a scanner for her and there's now a text file on her desktop titled 'How to Use the Scanner.txt'."

Occasionally Ms Bailey resorts to phoning Gina, hoping to avoid the hefty costs of premium rate IT helplines.

"Last week she called on her cell phone from a store where she was picking out a digital camera. She didn't trust the salesperson. Other times it's just how to do something in Excel for work, or why clip art won't show up in publisher. Simple questions."

To you perhaps, Gina. Others find their folks have a touchingly misplaced confidence in their children's technical prowess.

Paula, a 32-year-old journalist in London, is regularly called on by her father in Dunfermline for IT counselling.

"I get something every time I speak to my dad or see him," she says. "It's a nightmare if I happen to ring while he's mid-crisis. I rarely have the answer though. It's usually something to do with his email or ISP."

Old woman on computer
Sometimes parents know more than they think, and than their children
"In many areas he knows more than me because he actually does his research. I recently bought him a huge book on Adobe Photoshop and he is ploughing through every word of it."

Some children are taking the IT support role to heart, using the Remote Assistance application in Windows XP to remotely take charge of their parents' computer.

Of course, it's a scene that has been played out before.

The sprouting of VCRs in family homes 20 years ago - with their labyrinthine mechanisms for setting timed recordings - left millions of parents at the mercy of their offspring when it came to setting the machine.

Yet today, with digital technology permeating virtually every corner of life, things are getting ever more complicated.

VCRs look positively unassuming compared to the bewildering variety of DVD formats on the market today. Anyone care to explain the relative merits of DVD+R, DVD+RW, DVD-RAM, DVD-R, DVD-RW, DVD-ROM?

So it's a sobering thought that today's generation of young technophiles could one day find themselves outpaced by the sheer speed of technological change, and calling on their own children for assistance.

Add your comments to this story using the form below:

Oh what a bell this all rings!
anon (in case my dad reads this), Spain

This Christmas I helped Mom upgrade her computer. Free IT support in exchange for home-baked cookies (oh yeah, and that "gift of life" thing) - I think it's a pretty good deal!
M J Marshall, UK

How long before our parents off-shore our jobs to India then?
Nick, UK

I know exactly how these people feel! My parents call me day after day to fix their problems - even simple things such as "Where's email gone?" - the answer being 'you dragged it across the screen - look over there'.
Khyle Westmoreland, Nottingham, UK

Don't even get me started!
Andy, UK

This Christmas I found that while I can fix my Dad's new laptop, I can't work out how to programme his ancient video or operate his giant mobile phone!
Phil B-C, Maidenhead

My first ever 'tech support call' from my father was late one evening not long after he had bought his first ever - second-hand - PC. The question simply "What's a dll file and why am I missing one?". The next few weeks were spent rebuilding this rubbish he had bought! It's not all bad though - I provide his PC support and he provides my engineering support, ie plumbing, electrics, heating etc.
Paul Davies, UK

I used to spend more time on the phone to Mum sorting out spyware/virus/general computer malaise than chatting. Then I got her an iBook - with no virus/malware threats on the Mac, it's been really nice being able to call and not be an IT helpdesk.
Dom M, London, UK

I work in tech support and in my workplace they gave a computer to the wages dept. The lady who ran the dept was in her 40s and drove me mad everyday with calls for help. It was that bad that I ended up knowing her well enough to be asked to look at her pc at home. Through this I met her son, who I am now married to.
Diane Graham, UK

I've lost count of the hours my husband has spent on the phone to my father-in-law providing IT support. Most problems have come from his penchant to download anything and everything from the internet, thus causing all manner of nasties to infect his PC.
Sally, UK

It's all true. in terms of using the Internet, the main problem is how to engender a suitably informed sense of paranoia in someone who's spent a lifetime thinking that they are "secure" because their doors and windows are locked.
Mark, England

Some years ago I gave my father (then 68) one of my old computers and whilst IT support for him has been an uphill task my biggest challenge has been staying one step ahead of my 11-year-old son (I am 49).
Mike McCarthy, UK

Never source a PC for a family member. You got them the PC so you are their technical support for life. You may have done them a favour, but you are responsible for everything that goes wrong!
Ade, UK

I used to end up shouting down the phone at my poor Mum. She'd always try and anticipate the next instruction and use non-techy phrases to describe things that had gone wrong. So, if she lost a file, she'd claim the PC had "eaten it".
Jonathan, UK

I work in I.T. during the day and it seems nights and weekends supporting my parents. I also help my girlfriend's parents too from time to time. I don't mind - I get paid in kind with chocolate brownies!
Richard Bartley, United Kingdom

This is all so true, it reads like my life. My mother capable of using a computer on her own (just) after many years of tuition, but now my 79-year-old father-in-law has started learning to surf the web I'm inundated with tech support questions.
Thomas Hayes, UK

I spent many hours over the Christmas holiday getting rid of viruses and spyware from relatives' computers - it seems you can use the internet reasonably safely on dial-up with little protection, but when people upgrade to broadband they can get their machines infested with problems very quickly.
Jonathan Gebbie, UK

Older generations can have more to offer than the article suggests. I have helped out both my prospective son-in-law and grandson-in-law before now. At the age of 67 I have over 30 years experience of working with computers and can turn my brain to logical thinking or lateral thinking depending on the problem. You will not find me rushing at a problem, I have learned patience.
Jim Boys, Wales

I often get phone calls or emails asking for support form my dad, and I was very shocked when my mum finally managed to figure out email and managed to send me messages also. Every time I'm back home though they have a list of things that need fixing for them, and over christmas they had even arranged for me to go round to several of their freinds and fix their computers for them also.
Robin, Dublin and Bristol

This made me laugh out loud as the article could have been written about me. The funniest thing is though that my friends, family and work colleagues approach me with IT problems believing that I have great knowledge in this area. If only they knew that I in turn was getting the answers from my son!
Alistair Coy, UK

Yup, with knobs on.
Roger, UK

Even though I am an IT technician, I spent most of the festive season formatting my parent's PC and installing the whole of Windows XP because of the sheer tons of spyware on it. Not my ideal Christmas.
Andy, London, UK

Dad, are you reading this?
And in a few years time.... Son have you reminded me of this?
Gavin, UK

I read you article with real empathy. I have been working in Barcelona, Spain for more than 6 months, but when I return home to my parents and family in Shropshire I am usually faced with a list of technical 'problems' that need sorting out. Not just the computer, but fax machines, DVD players and even clocks on ovens and car stereo's often need my attention.
Daniel Rose, Spain

I've been pulled from class a couple of times at my high school just to guide my mom on the phone how to use the computer! Since then, they still call me when they don't know how to do something or something isn't working right on their computer/TV/VCR/fax machine, etc.
Becky, USA

The hardest thing is trying to get them to stop clicking "NO" when a popup asks something like "Would you like to install an extremely expensive hard core porn auto dialer - Yes/No". They innocently believe No actually means No.
John Kenny, UK

Several years ago when I was a student I was returning to Manchester after Christmas at home in Ireland. As I am walking through Manchester airport to collect my bags I hear an announcement on the intercom: "Could Thomas Smith please make his way to the nearest information desk". A message to call my dad. I immediately worry.
- Dad its me - is everything ok?
- No - I've lost everything and its gone blank?
- What?
- The computer, everything has gone blank. I can't find the internet or anything.
I can't repeat what I said but the staff in the airport information desk were surprised.
Thomas, Ireland / England

This did make my laugh. My dad, who is 76 and had hardly ever used a keyboard before, can now send and receive e-mails. I'm very proud of him, but if he accidentally resizes a window I can expect a call to make sure nothing has been damaged.
Edward, UK

Sounds extremely familiar! Whats most funny is that when its something you don't know, they look at you as if to say, how can you possibly not know!
Ciara, Ireland

Yep, I'm a techie for my mum too. Started about four years ago when I persuaded her to buy a mobile. Working for a telecoms company I was deemed to be font of all knowledge. When she ventured into computer-land 18 months ago and purchased a laptop the ante was upped 10-fold. After a lot of painful nurturing she now flies solo most of the time. I'm so proud! This is a lady who rang me up to complain she couldn't find a key marked "OK", so how could she press it!
Nadia Bagwell, UK

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