Parental advisory warning

Parental advisory warning. By Cynthia Joyce. Do's and don'ts of getting mom and dad online

Published January 13, 1998 7:00PM (EST)

My friends warned me: They said it would be the single most frustrating thing I'd ever do -- that it would make my parents crazy, and could even shatter the family. But I decided to do it anyway. I decided to get my parents online. In a fit of delusional optimism, I plunked a hand-me-down Mac on my dad's workbench in North Carolina, plugged it in and with a few bold keystrokes prepared to usher my befuddled parents into a Brave New World. At least, that's what was supposed to happen. What really happened was that I spent five days combating error messages, AOL busy signals and imbecilic computer salesmen before I had to give up and fly back to San Francisco, my mission aborted. That was December 1996. This past Christmas, I went back home determined to give it one last try. If I could just retrace my steps and figure out where I went wrong the first 10 times, I thought, then maybe I'd have a chance at success. So I made a list of my mistakes and endeavored to learn from them. In the interest of sparing you the troubles I encountered along the way, should you decide to single-handedly drag your non-computer-literate parents over the threshold of the Digital Age, I pass the following lessons along: 1. DO make choices for them: It may be the one time in your life when you really do know what's best for them. Bombarded with dozens of online service setup disks offering everything from free hours to free megs for personal Web pages, my parents were tempted to go with the highest bidder and pay some exorbitant fee for features they'd never use. The first service provider my parents signed up with never responded to numerous voice-mail messages pleading for help with their setup. Three months and three paid bills later, they found out the company had gone bankrupt. They tried a larger service, but again had trouble with the setup. This time when they called customer service, they got a recorded message telling them where they could e-mail the problem. Since all they really needed was Web access and an e-mail account, I checked around and chose a reliable local service provider -- and made sure that they employed real human beings in their customer service department. 2. DO warn them against fraud. When my father couldn't get the connection working, he called a computer training company that made house calls. Asking only for the address, they immediately sent a man out. The guy spent an hour poking around on the computer before announcing that he didn't work with Macs -- and could you make the check out to Mike Sheffield, please? My dad then took the computer to an Apple dealer and paid them $75 to "fix" it. And -- big surprise -- even with the computer newly spayed, he still couldn't get online. (To be fair, the guy did install a cute little icon on the hard drive.) 3. DO get the computer set up, hooked up and ready to go before starting the training/indoctrination period. If possible, do this somewhere where they can't see or hear you. Nothing will destroy their enthusiasm for the Internet faster than to see you cursing at the computer screen for two days straight. Remember, you want to foster the impression, however false, that you'll be making their lives easier. 4. DO teach one parent at a time. It'll be easier on all of you. You might even want to encourage your parents, as one friend did, to get separate computers. "One of them would accidentally hit the caps lock, and the other would accuse them of breaking the computer," she said. "They were always suspicious that someone had messed with the desktop -- finally, they each got their own computer, and put them side-by-side." 5. DO let them develop their own computer code language. It doesn't matter where you came down on the whole Ebonics debate -- the fact is, it will save you a lot of time and hassle if you just accept that your parents will not readily appropriate all the proper lingo. When your mother refers to the "typewriter" when what she really means is "keyboard," for example, go with it. Don't act like you don't know what she's talking about -- it didn't work when you were 12, and it won't work now. 6. DON'T use your parent's ignorance to hide your own. When my father innocently asked me how e-mail got across the ocean, I started to roll my eyes in typical exaggerrated fashion. Then I realized I didn't know. I took a stab at it anyway: "The same way a phone call gets across the ocean, of course." He didn't press the issue, and now neither of us really knows. 7. DO discourage your parents from reading the computer manual. Trying to get on the Internet by reading a user's manual is like pulling into a service station to ask for directions and getting a two-hour lecture on auto mechanics. You don't necessarily need to know everything about how the vehicle works, as long as it gets you where you need to go. 8. DON'T be a back-seat driver. Just as you wouldn't grab the steering wheel and scream "NO!" if you were riding in your parents' car and they were about to take a wrong turn, you should resist the urge to shout directions or grab the mouse away from them once they are safely online and exploring. No matter how many times they send the same e-mail or accidentally drag the browser off the screen, you have to let them figure it out. Accept the fact that trial-and-error is a better teacher than you'll ever be. 9. DON'T overuse information-highway metaphors. Your parents may be old and out-of-touch, but they can spot a clichi -- ease off on the gas. 10. DO write out step-by-step instructions. DON'T take a single step for granted. "Point-and-click" is two steps. Hitting the return/enter key should be listed as a separate and very important step. (Natural selection may ensure that future generations automatically hit the return key, but for now, always include this as a separate step.) 11. DO put step-by-step instruction lists somewhere that they won't lose it. Engrave it in a stone tablet that's too heavy for them to lift. Carve it into the desk next to the computer, if you have to. For a seasoned computer user, writing down every single step it takes to get online is like keeping a journal of every time you blink -- once you've laboriously compiled this stuff you take for granted, you won't want to do it again. Last year, I left my father instructions for how to find Salon, in the unlikely event that he succeeded in getting online on his own. He promptly lost the list and instead began randomly experimenting with the software installation disks that came with the computer. In the end, he had installed 31 new fonts -- including several that would have made some pretty nifty heavy metal posters -- but he still couldn't get on the Web. 12. DO emphasize that no matter how badly they get lost/screw up, it is virtually impossible for them to: a) make the computer blow up b) hit the "wrong" button c) destroy the entire Library of Congress database Like most people when they first get online, my father was petrified of making a wrong move, as if he were playing a game of chess that he'd bet his life on. Make sure your parents understand that there are very few things you can do on the computer that can't be just as easily undone. 13. DO point them in the direction of sites they are likely to find useful, and make sure to bookmark them. This is crucial for successful Internet indoctrination -- otherwise, what you've essentially done is installed cable access when all they ever watch is the Channel 5 news anyway. For my dad, I bookmarked a site that posted up-to-the-minute ski conditions. (Convincing him that checking the Web site was somehow better than just calling the 800 number was almost as big a challenge as getting him online in the first place.) So there it is, my hard-won wisdom. Heed it, and you may know the great pleasure I felt on Jan. 4, 1998, when I received my father's first-ever e-mail: "hey cynth. hope this is working. enjoyed your visit -- come back soon. take care -- dad." Moved by his newfound eloquence, I responded right away: "Dad! You did it! Congratulations!" And then I called him to tell him to check his e-mail.

By Cynthia Joyce

Cynthia Joyce has been a writer, editor and Web producer for 20 years. A former Arts and Entertainment editor for Salon, she lives in Oxford, Mississippi, and teaches journalism at the University of Mississippi.

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