Digital Manners: The Sitter Uses Our TiVo Without Asking!

Navigating the intersection of etiquette and technology.
Jan. 24 2012 11:14 AM

Hands Off the DVR! (Transcript)

What to do when the baby-sitter uses your TiVo without asking.

Farhad Manjoo:  So, make sure the kids are in bed by 8. There’s plenty of food in the fridge if you get hungry. And, oh yeah! Keep your hands off my TiVo!

 Emily Yoffe:  I’m Emily Yoffe, Slate’s Dear Prudence advice columnist

Farhad: I’m Slate’s technology columnist, Farhad Manjoo.  And this is Manners for the Digital Age.

Emily:  Today’s question is from a parent and pet owner who is concerned about the phantom television shows turning up on her digital video recorder. She writes, “Dear Farhad and Emily, our babysitter and pet sitter have both started recording shows on our DVR without asking. Is this rude? Would it be rude to mention to them if we ultimately decide it’s okay, but we just want to be asked? It seems strange to me, but when two folks have done the same thing, I worry I’m behind the times.” Signed, Leggo My TiVo.

So, Farhad, you’ve got babysitters in and out of the house. Do you have rules about your DVR?

Farhad:  No, I have no rules, and no one has done this, actually. But I think it’s fine. I draw this distinction. If the guest is just recording one show and not a whole season of something, it seems like that’s okay. These people have been given privileges to use the TV and they’ve both got jobs that require that they’re going to be interrupted. So you’re watching your episode of “Law and Order,” and then a kid comes along and starts crying because he wants food, so you record the show and watch it later after the kid’s in bed. I think that’s okay. It seems like it comes with the TV, the right to use a TV. You can record a show just to make sure you get to see the whole thing.

Emily:  All right. In opposition to you, this actually makes me somewhat uncomfortable. Your books are on display and I have no problem with anyone coming to my house and saying, “Oh, this looks interesting and taking a book off the shelf.” I’ve done that at other people’s homes.

I would never go to someone’s computer if I wanted to check my e-mail without saying, “Could I use your computer? Can you get me online?” because in your electronics, you can have a lot of personal stuff.

Your DVR could have things that are private and kind of embarrassing. You could be recording “The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills.”

Farhad:  Emily, have you been looking at my DVR?

Emily:  You’re an Atlanta boy; I know that. Electronics are somewhat different and the babysitter and pet sitter should say, “My favorite show is on while I’m going to be giving little Joey a bath. Is it okay if I record?”

Since these people aren’t asking and the employer is noting it, I think it’s fine for the employer to say, “Look, I don’t mind your using the DVR, but you’re using electronics in the house, just ask what’s okay and what’s off limits.”

Farhad:  I was assuming that these people have been given the right to use the television. The DVR on most systems is just part of the way the TV works. You can press the “record” button to record the show. You press the “recorded shows” button to see what’s recorded. If you’ve given them the right to use your television, maybe you can say, “Don’t press this button to see what I’ve recorded,” but that’s going to raise a lot of alarms.

I think it just comes along with being able to watch the TV. If you told them explicitly “Don’t watch the TV” or you haven’t told them how to use the TV or where the remotes are or anything like that, then that’s kind of a violation. It is like using your computer when you haven’t given them permission. But as part of the general right to use the television, I think you have the right to record a show.

I can see your point that they might be invading your privacy or they might be able to see something you’ve recorded that you’d rather they don’t see, but that’s part of allowing them to use the TV. If you don’t want them to see what you’ve recorded, just don’t let them watch TV.

Emily:  You raised an interesting point that these devices, if you watch TV, everything there is implicitly open to you. That’s hard to argue with, but I still have this somewhat uncomfortable feeling. I still think someone should say, “I’ve got this special show I want to watch.”

I frankly think they should record it at their own home and watch it in their own time. If you’re employing someone as a babysitter or a pet sitter, there will be downtime, but how urgent is it to go fiddling with people’s electronics to watch a particular show? I just think this is the kind of thing you don’t want people seeing you’ve been doing it. You’re an employee. Ask. I think it’s fine for the employer to say, “Hey, look, let me lay down some ground rules about this stuff.”

Farhad:  When my babysitter comes over, we show her how to use the TV – or the first time she came over, we showed her how to use the TV. There are two remotes because these things are never easy, so we have to explain which remote turns it on and which one is used for volume.

It’s part of the process of telling her about the house that the TV is introduced. I expect that we go out at 7:00, the baby’s in bed by 7:30 or 8:00 and she’s going to be there by herself for the next few hours. I imagine that she would like to watch television. It’s just part of the introduction to the house.

I think that if you’ve given someone that introduction to your electronic system, it’s just assumed that they’re going to use the buttons on there.

If I were a babysitter or a pet sitter and I was going to somebody’s house, I would feel okay recording a show just to make sure that I get to watch the whole thing later on once the baby is asleep or the dog has been walked or whatever.

But, as a courtesy, I would delete the show when I’m done. I don’t think that recording one show is going to harm the homeowner in any way. You’re not likely to be deleting other shows. There’s not going to be space concerns or something like that just recording one show. I think you’re not really hurting them in any way by just pressing the “record” button to make sure you watch the whole show.

I would not record a whole season of “Three’s Company” just because…

Emily:  Because you already have it.

Farhad:  Yes. Oh, I have so many episodes of that show. But if you know you’re going to be there every week so you just want to make sure you have something to watch, I wouldn’t do that. But I think recording one show is fine.

Emily:  I would feel uncomfortable doing that in someone’s house unless I said “Downtown Abbey” is going to be on and I’ll be out walking the dog. Can I record it?” But as you’ve pointed out so many times about these manners issue, it’s not a world-changing question. My bottom line is it’s fine for the homeowner just to make explicit some ground rules with the electronics.

Farhad:  My bottom line is if you’ve given a babysitter a right to use a TV, expect that they’ll record one show. But it’s not okay to record a whole season.

Emjly:  Send us your questions about shifting etiquette in the online age. Our address is digitalmanners@slate.com

Farhad:  You can also join our Facebook page where we carry on the conversation throughout the week.  Go to www.Facebook.com/digitalmanners.

Emily:  And we’ll talk to you next time on Manners for the Digital Age.

Farhad Manjoo is a technology columnist for the New York Times and the author of True Enough.

Emily Yoffe is a regular Slate contributor. She writes the Dear Prudence column. 

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