Elf on the Shelf: festive fun or Santa's sinister spy?

The Elf on the Shelf is a holiday retail phenomenon, but does placing a scout for Santa inside the home teach our kids to accept surveillance?

Academic says popular Christmas toy teaches kids to accept spying by an outside force

According to the book and DVD that comes with newer versions of the Elf on the Shelf, each night the elf flies back to the North Pole where he or she reports to Santa. One academic suggests this teaches kids to accept surveillance. (CBC)

If you celebrate Christmas and have small children at home, chances are good you've got an Elf on the Shelf. 

I was somehow entirely unaware of this Christmas phenomenon until two weeks ago, when a package arrived addressed to my two-year-old son. Inside was a small plush elf doll.

The DVD and book that came with our elf explains the concept and back-story. The gist is that each elf is assigned by Santa to watch over the home and ensure kids stay on the right side of that all-imporant naughty/nice scale. Each night in the weeks leading up to Christmas, the elf flies back to the North Pole where he reports directly to Santa himself.

The elf is said to travel by magic, so kids can find him at a new location each morning. One colleague tells me his Facebook feed is filled with parents who grumble about orchestrating the elf's nightly relocation.

Seeing where the elf has moved is now part of my son's pre-Christmas morning ritual, on par with plucking the daily chocolate from the advent calendar.

The elf is not embraced by all

Although it's proven to be a delight to many children, the Elf has also made a few enemies.

Laura Pinto, a digital technology professor at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, co-wrote a paper suggesting the Elf may teach kids to accept around-the-clock surveillance from an outside force.

"We're not suggesting that one toy is going to absolutely influence a child's view of the world," said Pinto on Monday's edition of CBC Radio's The Current. "But what we're suggesting is the nature of the game normalizes a certain form of non-familial surveillance … the Elf is essentially an employee of Santa who is put in the home specifically to observe behaviour and report to a different authority."

Pinto also has a problem with the bit of elf lore that teaches kids that touching the Elf will destroy its magic.

The Elf is essentially ... put in the home specifically to observe behaviour and report to a different authority.- Prof. Laura Pinto about the popular Elf on the Shelf toy

"It's this hands-off play and reporting back to a bigger authority that we see as contributing to normalization of this type of invasion of privacy," said Pinto. "It plays into a broader tapestry of bigger social issues that help us to form ideas about what's normal or abnormal."

Pinto said publishing her piece, which is based on opinion and not research, has sparked a healthy debate about how parents can talk to their kids about privacy issues.

The anti-elf backlash was in full swing last Christmas when CBC.ca published this story about people posting photos of elves in compromising positions or behaving badly. In one example, Star Wars bounty hunter Boba Fett had captured and encased an unfortunate elf in carbonate.

To me it seems unlikely the Elf's appeal will erode any time soon.

After all, wasn't Santa always all-seeing and able to secretly judge us from a distance? How long have kids been singing: "He knows when you've been sleeping/He knows when you're awake/He knows when you've been bad or good," etc. 

I do feel the need to point out that the Santa of my youth didn't need an army of elf scouts to keep kids in line.

Like most things related to Christmas, this will likely come down to the dollars. Since its first appearance as a self-published book back in 2005, the Elf on the Shelf has, almost by magic, become a retail juggernaut with some six million units sold in North America alone. The Elf, complete with book and CD, now sells for $40.

In a competition between an academic and a holiday retailing phenomenon, my money is on the Elf.  

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