This article is part of Update or Die, a series from Future Tense about how businesses and other organizations keep up with technological change—and the cost of falling behind. It is also the latest installment of Try Restarting, Slate’s IT-advice column. Got an IT question? Try restarting, and then email us.
I love my parents. They’re smart, capable people, but I cannot seem to help them stay safe online. They use the same passwords, or a slight variation, over and over. I just got my mom to trade her AOL email for Gmail with two-step verification. We have had several close calls with phishing and quite a few accounts have been compromised. If I mention a password manager like 1Password, they look at me like I’ve asked them to perform brain surgery. Any advice on the best strategy to help my parents?
I love that you love your parents and want to protect their data. No one is immune to online scamming, and it’s definitely not always an age thing. But it sounds like your parents aren’t up on the best practices of computer use in 2018, and they’re lucky you want to help keep them safe online.
First, helping your mom switch from AOL to Gmail with two-step verification was an excellent move. Even if she continues to use the same password for all of her accounts, at least her email is protected should that password become compromised. I’m sure you’ve already covered this, but adding a pass code to her phone (preferably a six-digit one or some kind of touch ID) is essential. There’s no point in having two-factor if the phone in question can be opened with the click of a home button. My own phone was recently stolen, and while I was superbummed to lose an expensive piece of tech, it’s the data on it that’s priceless. Because I use two-factor and a pass code, I didn’t have to worry about my texts, credit card information, or pet pics landing in the wrong hands.
If you or they can afford it and they aren’t already using one, an Apple computer could be the way to go. The operating system is less susceptible to viruses and malware. And in my experience, the interface is simpler to learn for those not accustomed to computers. (If they’re on a PC, running Linux over Windows is a more friendly choice for the less computer-savvy.)
If Mom and Dad have iPhones, they can use the relatively new encryption feature in Notes to write down sensitive information there without much worry. They can do this for their passwords, and if Notes is synced across their devices, they can access their info anywhere with just one master password to remember (which will also be safer behind their phone pass code). It’s also worth noting that Apple will make it easier to use third-party password-manager apps like 1Password in its next iOS.
If your parents really cannot do digital password keeping—and I’m going to get a lot of flak for this—it’s OK for them to write their passwords down in a notebook. The notebook should not leave the house. This is the method my own mom uses, and she leaves the journal in between many other similar-looking ones on her bookshelf. I recommend that they avoid writing down exactly which password goes with which website in case—and we’re really apocalypsing here—someone gets ahold of the notebook; a keyword like bank or email should suffice. Every parent has a locked drawer. You know the one. The notebook should live there.
As for the passwords themselves, make sure your parents avoid their children’s names, pet names, and birthdays. If they need help varying their one-trick password, suggest they use versions of their favorite song lyrics. Next, installing ad-blocker extensions on your parents’ browsers is a nice touch to avoid any credible-looking pop-ups, like those informing them that their computer is at risk and to call the number on the screen to fix it.
The last and most boundary-transgressing step is installing a remote control or desktop-viewing program on their computer, which will allow you, on your own computer, to access their device whenever they need help with something they aren’t sure about. My brother and I both live in different countries than my mother, so knowing that we can remote in (we use TeamViewer) is a very comforting thought to her. Tread carefully, though. You don’t want to become your parents’ helicopter child.
What if, hypothetically, you continually click “Remind me tomorrow” when your work laptop would like to update? How screwed up is my computer likely to be? And how long will my laptop be out of commission if I finally give in to the updates?
Hypothetically, not updating anything ever might play out like this:
Someone sends you an important file by email for you to edit. You go to open it, but you get a pop-up saying you can’t open this file because you’re running an older version of the program you need. Rolling your eyes, you go to update that specific app, but the App Store says you’re already running the latest version. Lies! How is this possible?
You write an angry email to IT. I receive this email and write back very politely that you are running the latest version of that program … for someone running an OS that came out three years ago. Time to upgrade your OS. Ugh, you were due to send that file back with your edits an hour ago.
Downloading the upgrade takes an hour (you choose not to use Ethernet out of spite), but now you’re looking at the clock and panicking. Once the download completes, the installer asks you to do the thing you dread the most: restart your computer.
You take a deep calming breath and restart—but not before closing 43 tabs and six Excel spreadsheets, and answering a few last emails. Your computer goes black. You haven’t seen it like that since you spilled coffee on it a year ago. And then the worst possible words appear in white on the screen.
One hour and 45 minutes remaining.
A sound somewhere between a pterodactyl and a car crash escapes your lips. In your extreme agitation, you spill coffee on your computer (again), and your computer flashes red before it dramatically bursts into flames. Your office bursts into flames. The world bursts into flames.
Anyway, you get the idea. Software needs to be updated constantly because it gets better constantly. Download those updates, click “Restart your computer now,” and go for a walk or make yourself a cup of tea. Updating (and restarting) will do you good in the long term. To borrow the motivational words of Shia LaBeouf: “Just do it.”
And if you’re running Windows and have been holding off … I say good luck to you. Only Satan himself knows how long those updates will take.