How to change my parents' computer-destroying habits
December 3, 2004 4:21 AM   Subscribe

Okay, I have parents that aren't the most tech-savvy people in the world. And that's okay.

The problem is that every three to four weeks, like clockwork, they will completely destroy Windows. The first time, it was very interesting and peculiar, because my Mother with no technically experience, managed to cause Windows XP SP2 to hickup into an NT boot screen and continously restart. Now, this is about the sixth time and I'm a little concerned.

I can't be there to watch them twenty-four seven, and they always call after something terrible has happened. Now they have some worm on their computer which has disabled Norton Antivirus, disallowed access to the Add/Remove Programs, disallowed access to the Administrator Tools, doesn't appear as any thread or process and closes Internet Explorer only when they try and visit Yahoo! In the past, after previous system wipes, I've tried installing FireFox, AdAware, and other utilities to help them, but then they destroy Windows or corrupt the file-allocation table.

What can be done to change my parents behavior or habits when on the computer or browsing the web so they can better understand how not to maim/corrupt/destroy/accost their computer?
posted by Colloquial Collision to Computers & Internet (41 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
You could lock down all the configuration rights using gpedit.msc or something. If they can't tinker they can't break. That's a bit harsh maybe, but it would work.
posted by tetsuo at 4:36 AM on December 3, 2004

Are they using an account without administrator privileges? It sounds like that would fix most of the problems right there.

Suggestion #2: Install Firefox and hide Internet Explorer the best you can.

Suggestion #3: Buy them a Mac. ;)
posted by neckro23 at 4:41 AM on December 3, 2004

Buying a Mac seconded from over here. My parents always used to destroy their PC--now that they have a Mac it never happens.
posted by josh at 4:51 AM on December 3, 2004

I'll third the Mac option. Since switching my wife to an iBook she hasn't had any problems.
posted by thebwit at 5:01 AM on December 3, 2004

Response by poster: I would love for them to have an iMac. Unfortunately, Mom has several Pop-Cap games which aren't compatible with a Macintosh, and she can't part with those.

Obviously, they're doing something on the Internet which brings these disasters to their machine. I assume. Is there anything I can teach them, or encourage them to read, that will make them more compassionate toward their poor PC?
posted by Colloquial Collision at 5:03 AM on December 3, 2004

change the web browser and email handler. uninstall the microsoft ones. for web browser, use firefox. i don't know what's best for email, though.
posted by andrew cooke at 5:04 AM on December 3, 2004

Maybe they have a hardware problem? I've seen faulty hardware eat Windows, especially if the hardware tends to fail during startup. "Corrupt the file allocation table" sounds familiar.

(I'm assuming you've covered things like "to turn it off, always use the shutdown command, not the switch on the power strip.")

Have a look at the Event Viewer. Red X == bad.

It sounds like you'll be needing to completely reinstall Windows again. Bummer. When you do it, really do it: back up their files, then reformat the drive. Apply security updates from behind a NAT firewall. If they don't have one, buy one at Best Buy for $50 and let them keep it.

Definitely no Local Administrator access for them, at least until you can rule out a hardware problem. Try AdAware, Firefox, high IE security settings, etc. again.

It's hard to convince non-technical folk that the computer is sometimes lying to them when it says "You need to install this!!!" The combination of a firewall, security updates, limited user access, and anti-virus/anti-spyware software should contain the damage for the most part.

Unfortunately, the only cure is a sophisticated user, and that's hard to teach. A start is "if you don't want us to keep having to waste time with your computer, never install anything without asking me about it first." Good luck!
posted by jmcmurry at 5:17 AM on December 3, 2004

Check with the IT person at a large library. Ask them what they use to keep patrons from mucking about with the settings on the library computers.

Failing that, try tough love. Spell out exactly what they may not do on the computer, and impose a penalty for noncompliance: nonrepair.
posted by luser at 5:20 AM on December 3, 2004

Have you ever thought of having them try a Linux LiveCD? Something like Knoppix would require only the most basic user training to get them back up on the web, and assuming they're using the PC only as a basic interface to the net (and not like my father, who still uses an old BASIC program he made to run his sports pools), there's nothing that they shouldn't be able to do from Knoppix.

Added bonus: it's just a LiveCD, there's nothing to corrupt or kill, it's all reloaded on bootup. Try it, you might be surprised.
posted by splice at 5:22 AM on December 3, 2004

Browser: Firefox or Opera
Mail: Thunderbird or The Bat!
Messaging: Miranda or Trillian
Antivirus: whatever, AVG is free and good.

Do this NOW. It will solve 95% of your problems.
posted by signal at 5:22 AM on December 3, 2004

Norton anti-virus and indeed any Norton products are often troublesome themselves in my personal experience. I'd suggest switching them to Firefox/Thunderbird or the Mozilla suite (if they want an integrated solution). McAfee for virus scanning, what others have said about Admin access, and clean it up with a combo of AdAware and Spybot. My parents are also not tech savvy and they never have a problem with their PC. Nor do I for that matter.
posted by juiceCake at 5:25 AM on December 3, 2004

Just to echo neckro23 comment - make sure they're not logging on as a user which has Administrator rights - although I know this isn't possible if they're using Windows XP Home edition. If that is the case it might be worth upgrading them to XP Professional.
posted by john-paul at 5:41 AM on December 3, 2004

Steve's Goofy Idea Of The Day, but it just might work: Do a ground-up install of their OS and software. Once this is complete, Ghost an image onto a new, identically sized hard disk. Disk is cheap. Create a weekly task that Ghosts the primary disk to it's freshly installed state. If they have disk based email or docs, get them a USB pen drive (less than $50 for plenty of space) and save all data to that.

If that fails, take away their computer rights and send them to their rooms ;)
posted by SteveInMaine at 5:52 AM on December 3, 2004

My family is in the same boat. If it isn't my brother's porn or my mom's strange mailing lists, it's my sister's AOL chatting. (They refuse to get rid of AOL.) They have been doing well since I installed Ad-Aware and AVG. I set my mom up with a step-by-step guide that she has to sit down and run once a week. Update, run, clean. She really hates it, but it is the only way their computer will run consistently.

I wanted to buy them a cheaper eMac for Christmas, but the amount of games they play makes it impossible. Looking into VirtualPC, but isn't is susceptible to the same worms and crap like a PC?
posted by dual_action at 5:55 AM on December 3, 2004

Describes my M-i-L to a "T". The funny thing is that there is a 12 hour drive that separates her from her tech support (me). I'm installing linux the next time I visit (ten days away--help!) and giving her a totally locked-down user account. If she can't hack it then she gets to find someone else to re-install windows and play tech support. You could do worse than take signal & neckro23's advice though that hasn't seemed to help corral the M-i-L much.
posted by Fezboy! at 5:58 AM on December 3, 2004

Get Deepfreeze. Reinstall all of the software that they use, and then activate Deepfreeze.
This software makes it literally impossible to mess up your system for longer than it takes to reboot. It stores a drive image on your hardrive and restores it everytime the machine is rebooted. You can leave them "My Documents" to keep their files in if they require that.
I installed this software on my father-in-law's internet cafe pc's about six months ago and have not had to touch a thing on the completely open win 98 boxes that he has.
I highly recommend this product. (NCI, just a satisfied user).
They have a 60-day trial edition on their website if you want to try it out.
posted by davey_darling at 5:59 AM on December 3, 2004

Based on my experience doing free tech-support for friends 'n' family, it cannot be done. Some of it is because of Windows shortcomings but a lot of it is just user error. Those of thus who are tech-savvy enough to try to help are a different species than those that need our help. There are things that we instinctively know not to do. For example, if something blinks at you on a Web page, don't click it. All the FireFoxes in the world can't help people who are powerless against the irresistible force that is a blinking Bongo Buddy icon. And email? Forget it. You can't tell them not to open any attachments if they can't understand what an attachment is.

We can't teach intuition. And I'm not talking about stupid people. Knowing what to do and what not to do isn't a function of intelligence. It's just that we have a different perspective than them and cannot anticipate the crazy things they'll try to do.

Setting up a locked down user account won't work because some software packages will not work without Admin privileges in Windows NT variants. Inevitably it'll be the stupid game or Barbie something-or-other that they "can't live without". And giving them a user account ends up a pain-in-the-ass for you anyway because there'll be things that they'll legitimately need to do which require admin rights. Either you'll have to do those things for them (sucks) or you'll need to give them an admin login which they'll end up using all the time and then you'll be back to helping them (sucks).

So, resign yourself to either helping them and all that entails or refusing to help them and risk damaging your relationship. I've chosen the latter path. Except I've found that they'll fall for anything you tell them. I tell them that I haven't run Windows XP (which is true) and that it's completely different from all other kinds of Windows (which isn't) and therefore don't know what to do any more than they do. Play dumb. It's better for everyone in the long run.

Or, yeah, get them a Mac.
posted by TimeFactor at 6:06 AM on December 3, 2004

My parents need the visual feedback of the 'blue E' for getting on the web. I solved this by installing firefox, renaming the shortcut, and changing the icon to the explorer E. Good times.
posted by adamkempa at 6:16 AM on December 3, 2004

Get a Mac.
posted by omidius at 6:18 AM on December 3, 2004

#1. You won't be able to break their habits without looking like a bad guy. Remember that teacher that spent their entire classes pissing kids off by telling them their handwriting was bad, the margins were wrong, they shouldn't write with red pen?

Well, the results were good, but I bet you still resent the guy. Don't become that guy to your parents because after 1 year you still have to deal with them.

#2. If you lock down windows you will get calls all day "I can't install MY_FAB_SPYWARE.EXE! WHY?"

#3. The solution:

You tell them their files are not safe on the hard drive. They probably already know this since you've probably formatted/reinstall countless times already. They've figured out what to do about this (either live with it or they're using floppies/CD-Rs).

Now, reinstall/reformat. Partition the drive into two equal sizes. Get everything set up nice and ready. Get a copy of Norton Ghost. Ghost from partition A to a file on partition B. Hide partition B from windows XP (this is possible in the drive manager or whatever it is called). Probably do the hiding before ghosting.

Make up a floppy disk that automatically runs ghost and ghosts the image on partition B to partition A. Label it "COMPUTER AUTO-FIX" and tell your parents to insert it and turn on the computer before calling you.

Yeah. Enjoy the freedom!

The best part of all this is they will learn what screws up the computer themselves after they "fix it" and break it within a day. After that they will learn not to do that. And they won't be angry at you, either. BONUS!
posted by shepd at 6:25 AM on December 3, 2004

Get a Mac. I bought my dad two computers, a Macintosh and a Windows PC. The Macintosh has had minor hiccups but has never been rendered unusable. This is especially true since I got him an eMac G4 running MacOS X. It's fucking bulletproof.

The Windows PC is constantly in need of maintenance and I made sure he didn't have any administrator privileges.
posted by substrate at 6:25 AM on December 3, 2004

I'd recommend installing Centurion's DriveShield PLUS for Home Computer Protection -- it "write-protects the hard drive and records all changes to a temporary storage area. The computer behaves as if all changes are permanent providing a full user experience. However, upon reboot, all changes (actually written to a temporary scratch space) are wiped free from the computer instantly restoring it your favored configuration." You allocate certain folders like My Documents that won't be effected by the reboot.
posted by fourstar at 7:01 AM on December 3, 2004

One more note: The software I just mentioned works great in the computer lab of a FRAT HOUSE, so I'm sure it'd be parent-safe too.
posted by fourstar at 7:03 AM on December 3, 2004

There are lots of pop-cap games available for the Mac from Omni. I've got Bejewelled and Alchemy, myself.
posted by bonaldi at 7:04 AM on December 3, 2004

My brother and I put our parents on Red Hat. It was cruel but it sure keeps the system stable.
posted by inksyndicate at 7:46 AM on December 3, 2004

You've got them Adaware, but they have to run it. You might find the following prevention measures against spyware/adware useful:
Spywareblaster SpywareBlaster will prevent spyware from being installed.
Spywareguard SpywareGuard offers realtime protection from spyware installation attempts.
IE/Spyad IE/Spyad places over 4000 websites and domains in the IE Restricted list which will severely impair attempts to infect your system. It basically prevents any downloads (Cookies etc) from the sites listed, although they will still be able to connect to the sites.
MVPS Hosts file The MVPS Hosts file replaces the HOSTS file with one containing well know ad sites etc. Basically, this prevents their computer from connecting to those sites by redirecting them to which is the local computer
They are all free downloads. They will help a bit, although in the end this is an endless game of cat and mouse.
posted by grahamwell at 9:06 AM on December 3, 2004

Hosts File
Ad Aware
SPAM filtering (this is often where trouble finds its way in)
High Security settings in the browser/OS
Use FireFox
Private Firewall

Also - I suggest you make total recovery easier by formatting their disk, reinstalling everything, and then making an image of the drive. If you can't keep this from happening, maybe you can make it less painful when it does happen.

I realize that your question was how to change their habits, but having worked in user support for a couple years, I know this is the most difficult route, and often impossible.
posted by scarabic at 9:39 AM on December 3, 2004

My parents need the visual feedback of the 'blue E' for getting on the web. I solved this by installing firefox, renaming the shortcut, and changing the icon to the explorer E. Good times.
posted by adamkempa at 6:16 AM PST on December 3


I am so doing this at Christmas.
posted by mimi at 9:45 AM on December 3, 2004

Not sure if this would prevent a total trashing, but I set my grandparents up with a broadband connection and GoToMyPC.

Then, when things go wrong, I can log into their computer at will... and change anything back to however I like. I can also get on the phone to them and demonstrate things to them live, with both of us seeing the same screen.
posted by skylar at 10:15 AM on December 3, 2004

I think instead of locking down everything, they need to learn that pop-ups and things that are wanting to be installed on their computer SHOULD NOT get installed. Encourage them, tell them about spam techniques, etc. I think this will have a greater impact.
posted by agregoli at 10:46 AM on December 3, 2004

I take an entirely different approach - install Windows and Program Files to C:, put My Documents on a different partition, do a clean install, patch and ensure everything auto-updates that should, test, backup C:, and teach the user how to recover.

I use acronis true image and can't recommend it enough.
posted by rjt at 11:47 AM on December 3, 2004

What can be done to change my parents behavior.....

Dude, if you figure that one out, let me know. My Dad shuts down his Mac by yanking the plug out of the wall, and my Mom clicks the mouse at the screen as if it were a television remote....
posted by spilon at 12:20 PM on December 3, 2004

One question - is it possible that your parents have substandard hardware? Did they buy a bargain machine with the software already installed - and no discs?
Are your parents better or worse off since dl-ing SP2? I use Windows XP, but did not trust Microsoft to cure the problems they created, so never dl-ed SP2.
I email regularly to about 90 women of various ages and states of computer savvy - including "what's a search engine?". Pretty sure that many have no idea of what worms and viruses they may have. To protect myself, I run Norton and Black Ice constantly, and AdAware and Spybot regularly.
I also have the benefit of computer literate relatives as close as IM. When I suggest that older people consult their children/granchildren for assistance, the reaction is usually a puzzled stare. Bothersome as problems are, be glad that your kin are consulting you instead of some soi-disant expert who would create havoc AND take their money.
posted by Cranberry at 12:40 PM on December 3, 2004

you can give your parents more access than a guest account on XP; using the administrative tools you can change their account to a power user or restricted user if desired. however, they will show up as "unrecognized account type" in the user accounts and welcome screens. these account types are there, but hidden by default in XP.

just turn on settings (using tweakUI or such) so that the system always boots into that account by default. restricted user might be your best bet... can only install software that will not affect other users. if they trash their own account, kill it and give them a new one.
posted by caution live frogs at 12:59 PM on December 3, 2004

See - I think alot of Bad Users are just being lazy. And I think it's possible to encourage them to not be lazy. I get all antsy watching my dad use his computer, because he's so... slow... But. He never breaks a damn thing. He just put in a little time and effort years ago, when we got our first family computer (486), and now he's fine. I support a bunch of people at work as the office tech, and have also helped a number of them with their home computers, for free and for compensation, depending on the service.

So I think you should settle down with your parents over some wine and cheese (or whatever), and say "look. This is an expensive thing that you bought for yourselves. It is like a car, and you guys don't do things like go to crooked mechanics or dump sugar in your gas tank. Just so, you guys are smart people and certainly not incapable of excercising some common sense with your computer. It's like any other appliance you own."

People just use the "computers are new!" thing as an excuse to be lazy. Don't let them.
posted by kavasa at 1:10 PM on December 3, 2004

"...or corrupt the file-allocation table. "

I can't say this loudly enough: USE NTFS. Especially in cases like this where the most likely cause of filesystem corruption is that the computer is just being turned off without being shut down. NTFS is much more likely to survive this kind of abuse.

It doesn't matter if they deny doing this, because unless the hardware is failing severely, that's what they're doing. Rule number one: Users lie.

"...but then they destroy Windows..."

I can't say this loudly enough: USE NTFS and CHANGE THE ACLS. If normal unprivileged users (they're not "administrative users", right? That would be batshit insane...) are damaging the OS install, it's because they can write to it, which they shouldn't be able to do.

Rule number two: Users will damage anything they have access to.

"Now they have some worm on their computer..."

I can't say this loudly enough, either: DON'T LET THEM USE INTERNET EXPLORER. Better still, avoid anything that uses MSHTML or embeds or wraps IE. This includes Outlook, Outlook Express, Crazy Browser. They likely don't have a worm, but some other sort of trojan -- this machine is probably part of a zombie network at the moment.

Rule number three: Internet Explorer is dangerous.
posted by majick at 3:43 PM on December 3, 2004

Response by poster: Thank you, everyone, for all your help and suggestions. I will look into the software utilities and user privileges you've mentioned.
posted by Colloquial Collision at 4:24 PM on December 3, 2004

I second Deepfreeze - my high school had it installed when I was there (not because of me...).

It was so nice to install whatever when I needed it and just reboot when I left, reverting the machine to a pristine state. I'm pretty sure the IT department had a ball too. (now they just use "powerless user" accounts, were I couldn't just install whatever)

Just make sure to install whatever they want (and what you have to) and run it once first - otherwise stuff like office will finish its install every reboot - very annoying.

If you don't give them password, absolutely nothing is going to get around it. Believe me, I tried and spyware, etc isn't going to be smart enough to.

Also, they have magic that makes the machine almost impervious to disk corruption (by software, not hardware failure). You can literally repartition the drive and format it and it will still reboot back to normal. (at least I thought that's how it works)

Make sure to have a virus scan too though - Deepfreeze doesn't protect against their portion of HD space devoted to storage from word macro viruses.
posted by easyasy3k at 8:22 PM on December 3, 2004

I have seriously considered sending my own mother to an ACF, your parents may benefit from it as well.
posted by cali at 11:26 PM on December 3, 2004

Deep Freeze allows a directory, such as "my documents" to remain unwiped after rebooting.

Deep Freeze saved me many hours of work when I was a lab tech. Not even hackerz can get into it.
posted by mecran01 at 8:01 PM on December 14, 2004

Oh--my mom's machine had endless spyware problems, so my bro installed Linux on it. She misses solitaire, but that's about the only drawback, and I'll find one for her eventually.
posted by mecran01 at 8:04 PM on December 14, 2004

« Older Liposuction advice sought   |   RealPlayer Alternatives Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.