How to Make Parental Tech Support Even More Frustrating

Double the exasperation by adding a language barrier and distance.

Frustrated woman on her phone while looking at her computer screen.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Thinkstock.

When Mi Ja and Jai Ho Lee encounter a technological problem, they usually try to troubleshoot it themselves first. But they often end up turning to their favorite support person: John Lee, their son and my husband. Can he help them book their next flight? Why is this smartphone app doing that? Also, did we update the password for the family Netflix account?

They’re in good company. In a 2017 Pew study, “48% of seniors say that this statement describes them very well: ‘When I get a new electronic device, I usually need someone else to set it up or show me how to use it.’ ”

Unfortunately, my husband and I are among the 20 percent of American adult children who live more than a couple of hours’ drive from our parents. So tech help over the phone is a needs must. It’s a situation described by comedian Ronny Chieng as “the most excruciating form of torture.”

What’s surprised me most about the generational divide with technology, though, is the language barrier it often entails and the lack of resources to bridge that barrier. Some 60 million other Americans, according to the 2009–13 American Community Survey, speak a language other than English in their home. Further, technology has its own ever-evolving lexicon. Even if parents and children speak the same language, technology often requires a cross-generational translator.

My husband speaks limited Korean, his parents’ native tongue. When his parents call, the conversation usually takes place in some mix of Konglish as they struggle to identify which icon on a phone needs to be clicked on or which cord goes from printer to laptop. In person, if they reached a language impasse, John could just point to the right thing. Not so on the phone.
“What they’re asking me to do is simple-ish, but without being there to actually show them, it’s not simple,” said John.

What is an adult child to do for parents whose technological acumen and most comfortable language are different from their own? I went searching for apps or companies, assuming someone must see a market opportunity in bridging the digital divide across languages. Yet I found limited resources. There are apps that translate school bulletins for non-English-speaking parents, but these are limited to school-related information. And there are portable translator devices, like the Ili, but these are often engineered to answer tourist questions like where the restroom and bus stop are located, not how to download a podcast.

John’s cousin, Jasmine Lee, who lives a three-hour drive from her parents, said her tech tutorials follow an emotional arc from patient to frustrated to “über-annoyed.” Jasmine said this is largely due to the Korean apps on her mother’s Android phone; Jasmine uses an iPhone and is “barely conversationally adept in Korean.” Google Translate and referring to her sister-in-law who speaks better Korean function as an ad hoc Geek Squad.

Emmy Beltré, a graphic designer in Indianapolis, has found a similar method works with his parents who live an hour away, even though it leaves him depleted. He said he struggles to translate technical language from English to the Spanish his parents speak. Beltré said, “I use a lot of different words to describe one thing. If that fails, I use Google Translate.” And then the cycle starts again. “With my dad,” said Beltré, “although I show him how to do things and he even takes meticulous notes, he always ends up asking me how to perform the same task weeks or months afterward. Perhaps he just needs a better teacher.”

Eunis Choi Segnere, a dentist in Atlanta, said providing tech support to her Seattle-based mother, who speaks mainly Korean, can be so frustrating that she has to ask her husband for help—to calm herself down. “We’ve discovered we have such a short fuse with our own parents and much more patience for each other’s parents,” said Segnere. “I haven’t figured out any good way to help them with technology, though, because I am also technologically impaired. We usually save all our tech help when we are there in person to help them.”

For call support, the translating tech toolkit seems to be a mix of Google Translate and much patience, as well as promises to deal with the more complicated matters in person when the opportunity presents itself. “Every Christmas, I spend hours with my dad’s computer, updating virus protection and removing malware because he clicks on banner ads that promise to make his computer run faster,” said my husband, John.

I asked him if there was anything that might make it easier, whether in person or from afar. “The easiest thing would be if I took control of their computer remotely, especially if it were a software issue,” he said.

I wondered how successful this might be. I asked my friend, Jon Jarc, an arts and technology teacher in Cleveland, how tenable such a solution has been with his own parents. Jarc and his parents all speak and read English as a first language. But he still says tech literacy is its own language barrier. He says his mother approaches technology with “just enough fear of ‘breaking something’ that she’s not quite willing to rip the hood off and change things around to solve her own problems.”

Jarc has devised a sort of triage situation. If troubleshooting requires something too sophisticated for a phone call—such as when he recently had to help his mother reset the Wi-Fi security for her Airbnb 50 miles away—he goes nuclear: He uses TeamViewer, free software that allows remote takeover of the computer. Like so many peers with whom I spoke, Jarc said he’d rather do a remote takeover and reserve any conversation time with his parents to “talk about the good stuff—and not our Wi-Fi passwords!”

Jarc’s story was an eye-opener for me. I had blamed the challenges with my in-laws on the Korean-English barrier, but perhaps that was wrong. His parents all speak English, all have advanced degrees, but he kept mentioning literacy and translation. So even though there’s a real problem in not being able to help elders who speak or read a different language, there’s a translation problem for everyone. This is only heightened by distance. I still wish that there were some resources I could turn to that address the language barrier, but until then, Google Translate, a remote takeover, and a lot of patience will have to suffice.