Teach your grandparents to use Skype

The grandparent can be notoriously tricky customer when it comes to educating, particularly when that education is a lesson in technology, but, because you're a good person and this is the Good Christmas, you're going to give it a shot by giving them the gift of VoIP.

Now, obviously there are many kinds of grandparent from the younger end right up to the great grandparent. Within that there's also going to be big differences in technical ability and experience from the hardcore silver surfer to the absolute novice. What this is, is a guide for the lowest common denominator. This is how to teach your grandparent who knows nothing about computers how to use Skype, and it's not going to be easy.

The trouble is that the technophobe grandparent can be a highly conflicted creature. On the one hand, they would like their lives to be enriched and they would also, deep down, like to learn and experience new things. At the same time though, they do not wish to be humiliated and they'll get wound up if they start becoming acutely aware of the fact that their brain power is a touch rustier than it once was.¬†Push them into that corner and you’ll find that they give up quickly with statements about not being bothered or it being a waste of time or saying thing like they’re too old or such. Softly, softly is the approach but don’t talk to them like children - only as children of technology.

Do they want to learn?

Your first job before you bother with any of this is to find out whether your grandparent actually wants to use Skype. It's an important consideration and it's no use forcing it on them otherwise they'll bail on the lesson at the first opportunity

They'll probably be aware of the idea of video calling on the Internet but, if not, explain that it's possible, that you can do it to anywhere in the world and, most of all, that it's free. Remove the notion that they could accidentally wrack up three digit phone bills and you'll torn down a chunk of one of the most important barriers in this process - fear.

General Rules

1. No acronyms.¬†Start using terms like VoIP and they’ll be brushing you off before you’ve even opened a laptop.

2. No external webcams. Make them connect any hardware or do anything more complicated in the set up beyond pressing the on button and it’ll never happen; or, worse still, you’ll end up getting IT support calls at work for the next three months with verbal descriptions and instructions that’ll misunderstood by both parties. Internal devices only.

3. No jargon. Come to think of it, don’t even refer to the thing as a webcam. At worst, it’s a camera; at best, maybe don’t even mention it at all. As for megapixels and Facebook integration, just don’t even think about it.

4. Keep it simple. Humanise the whole process. No need to explain in full details what’s going on when sometimes the idea of things happening by magic might be easier to swallow rather bombarding with fact.

5. Be prepared to fail. Ultimately, this isn’t a guide on how to annoy your grandparents. There’s a very good chance that you’re not going to succeed with this, so let it go if it doesn’t work. There’s no point in getting anyone unduly upset. Give in when they decide that they’ve had enough.

6. Write it down. It’s no good asking people to remember a whole process after telling them once. Make step by step notes for them which they can consult any time they wish. If you can include pictures and screenshots, then so much the better.


A great deal of the stress and complication of this task can be eradicated by some solid prep work done days before you even attempt to teach your grandparent how to use Skype. This is what you’ll need to do.

a. Set up a computer

Now, there’s an excellent chance that your grandparent does not own a computer and possibly has never used one either. This is going to be the hardest part to get around and, again, it's mostly a question of fear.

Do not attempt to set up a new computer with your grandparent next to you. They will lose interest long before you get to Skype. The best thing to do is find an old but not knackered machine for them to keep. A netbook with a reasonable webcam would probably be ideal.

Whatever you choose, strip it down. Clear the storage, remove most of the software and take as many icons off the desktop as possible. Try to keep it down to Skype, Office and your choice of browser. All extraneous manufacturer on-screen docks and tool bars should be deleted. The only decision we’ll leave to you is whether you want to include anti-virus or not. You’ll probably get away without it given that they won’t be using the Internet at large or e-mailing just yet but it’s your call. Do you think they can handle Avast telling them that it’s updated itself or Norton asking for permission to scan?

b. Set up Skype

Much of the hard work can be done before you sit down with your grandparent. What we’re aiming for is open and call usability by the time you’re showing them how it’s done.

The first thing that your grandparent will need is a Skype account. Set that up beforehand. If you start up the program together to find that they already have an amusing name like Granny Lint complete with amusing profile pic, then you might even get a giggle and, remember, giggles buy you more attention span, and more attention span is what you'll need to complete this task successfully.

Tick the box on the front end of Skype to automatically sign in the moment they open the program and you can even set it to start up as soon as the computer logs on as well, all in the same place at the sign in screen.

Your next move is to make sure that the Skype window is maximised. If you leave it like that when you close it, it’ll be the same way every time they open the program. Naturally, they will hit the wrong button at some point up in that top right corner but the good thing about Skype is that minimising and closing basically do the same thing. There’s no need to explain how to shut down Skype at any point.

c. Populate their contacts list

Again, something which can be done on your own time is adding a list of contacts to their account. Get all the family added, making sure that they accept the requests at the other end. That way, you can tell your grandparent that if anyone tries to befriend them on Skype, that they can just ignore the request. You don’t have to demonstrate how that’s done. Just write that tip down and they’ll know what to do at the time. Ultimately, that will either work out as pressing the “Ignore” button or literally just ignoring it. What they won’t do is click "Accept" and that’s what counts.

d. Check the settings

Have a quick play with their Skype account. No need to add many profile details - just a picture if you like - but do head into "Options" under "Tools". Check that the call, video and microphone settings work. Don’t bother with a headset. Keep to what’s built into the laptop, and check the audio settings are at a decent volume level.

Then head to the "Privacy" area and make sure that no one other than known contacts can call, video call or IM your grandparent’s account. Test it all out again from boot, make a test call to check and you should be done.


Step 1: Picking the right time

It might be obvious but don’t underestimate the first step. Don’t explain all about Skype when it suits you, pick a time when it suits your grandparent. They’re probably at their most willing to listen in the mid-morning. There’s no good telly on that they’re going to miss and you’re unlikely to clash with The Archers either. The other advantage is that they’re less likely to be tired at this point in the day and probably more willing to give things a go. So, perhaps check with them first, then brew some tea for the pair of you and even bring in a plate of sliced up Mars bars to keep everyone’s blood sugar nice and high.

Step 2: Powering up

It’s tempting to start explaining all sorts about Windows or Mac OS when it pops up on the screen but don’t. You’ll only be eating through some of that precious attention span and probably wiping out how much in total you’ll get anyway by adding some confusion here and there. Effectively, you’ll be burning the candle at both ends. Avoid this. Stick to the plan and say that you’ll be happy to field any of their non-Skype related questions after the main task. They’ll appreciate the structure.

There are three things you need to teach your grandparent to do. The first is press the on button. Make sure that they take note of the positioning and get them to press it themself. It’s a practical lesson not a demonstration. You’ll have plenty of time to play with your own computer later.

It’s probably worth mentioning that booting up will take a while. Obviously don’t use the work “booting”. It might be best to tell them to wait 60 seconds or so before returning to the machine to make sure that everything has loaded that needs to. We don’t want hour glasses and spinning wheels to start confusing the issue.

What you need to do now is teach them to use the mouse. Sounds silly and obvious but they might not have done this before. Whether you choose to go with a trackpad or a dedicated mouse is your choice. They both have their relative advantages and disadvantages. Whichever you choose, tell them to ignore right click button.

Now, being curious creatures, they're going to ignore anyway, so do show them what happens when you right click and how to get out of it when a little menu pops up. Beyond that, just work on moving the cursor around and left clicking on things here are there. If you want, you don’t even have to bother with double-clicking. If you pin the Skype program to the Taskbar on Windows 7, then it’s a simple one click operation to fire it up. Otherwise, create a desktop icon.

Step 3: Making a call

Ok. This is the moment you’ve been waiting for. First up, you need to explain the difference between the status icons. They’re not going to like this. It makes things seem more confusing that they first thought it would have to be, but don’t be perturbed. It won’t take long. Just remember not to actually use the words "status icons". They might think you're talking about a luxury yacht or something.

Click on the drop down by the green tick next to their name in the top left and show how you can change between Away, Busy and Do Not Disturb. It’s also worth pointing out what Offline looks like but no need to worry about Invisible. They’ll ask but fob them off until you decide to come back for advanced lessons. The idea of the status changes isn’t so much to teach your grandparent how to change their own but more to recognise what they’re contacts are doing and why they might not be able to reach them at any given moment.

Now that that’s all sorted, it’s time to make a call. Again, it’s probably best to avoid double-clicking. Instead, get them to click once on the person they’re after in the left pane to make sure they’re highlighted and then click “Video Call” in the main panel. It actually doesn’t matter whether they go with Call or Video Call but pick one and stick to it. Your grandparent can easily start or stop a video once a call is in-progress. Make sure to show them how to do that.

Make your first call together to a family member that you know will be there and, if you’ve reached this point, give yourself a pat on the back. The real reward is about to come as soon as your grandparent gets to enjoy a live face to face conversation. Cue delight.

Once you’ve both had a good chinwag, show them how to hit the red phone icon to hang up. The one next to the person’s name on the contacts panel on the left is probably the easiest place to do it.

Now that your grandparent has the hang of things, log into Skype on your smartphone and get them to call you. Make sure that you sit round the corner, far enough away not to end up in a horrible feedback loop. Give that a whirl a few times. Get them to call you and try calling them back to make sure that they can answer and, if they’ve got that down, then they’re basically there.

Step 4: Changing the volume

The only other thing you'll have to show you grandparent how to do in-call is to change the volume. The message here is not to bother mucking around with the in-app volume control. It's faff compared to using the master volume slider attached to the Taskbar on the bottom right of Windows and at the top on a Mac.

Make sure that the icon is always visible and get your grandparent to mess about with it and see what kind of difference it makes. Also be sure to show what it looks like when it's in mute. It's bound to happen some day by accident and they'll need to know what to do when it does.

Step 5: IM

Calling is, of course, only half of the equation of Skype but, in actuality, it’s probably 90 per cent of what your grandparent wants to use it for. All the same, it’s worth showing them how IM works because it’s going to happen at some point.

Again, you’re going to want to approach this by selecting the relevant contact in the left panel and then by clicking and starting to write in the field on the bottom right. Have a play back and forth first with a remote family member and then a few times with your smartphone. You can leave the likes of emoticons and sharing files for another day.

Step 6: IT Support

You’ll be able to accomplish just about anything else in terms of developing your grandparent’s Skype usage remotely from now on. After all, they’ll be able to video call and IM you for further help and information. The only missing tool is screen sharing and that’s something you’ll be able to instruct them how to do once they need help. Remember that to get it to work, you need to be on a call with them. Then get them to go to the "Call" menu and then to the bottom of that where it says "Share Your Screen".


If you've made it this far, then well done you. You've just enriched someone's life and that's the best thing you can do for anybody. And all it cost you was some time and a little patience. From here on in, the world is your grandparent's oyster. See how they get on with the basics, add in a few extras as time goes by and maybe it'll be time to start on browsing the web at large next year.

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