Elf on the Shelf is the worst addition to American Christmas festivities of the last half century. Yes, even worse than Love Actually.
The elf is a small toy with a smarmy face that children are not allowed to touch lest they break its supposed magic. Each night from Thanksgiving on, parents place it in a new location, typically with a clear view of the most trafficked room of the home. From there, the kids are told, the elf will observe everything they do and rat them out to Santa Claus. Should they misbehave, this puckish narc will ensure their Christmas haul shrinks accordingly.
As others have observed, this is transparently "a marketing juggernaut dressed up as a 'tradition.'" Yet many parents have "adopted" it anyway, to borrow the toy's cloying conceit. "With Elfie's help, I reckon my husband and I squeeze about a month of improved conduct from our brood," explains Ruth Margolis here at The Week. Whatever the elf's appeal may be for children — and frankly, as a former kindergarten Santa truther, I can't imagine any such lure — the pitch to parents is obvious: This apocryphal expansion of the Santa mythology might successfully blackmail your kids into passable behavior in pursuit of disposable plastic trifles they unquestionably do not need.
But let's set aside these short-term manipulations to consider the blackest mark against the elf, which I submit renders it unpurchaseable even if you're sold on the parenting utility. To wit: Elf on the Shelf conditions your kids to accept the surveillance state.
"I watch and report on all that you do!" the elf says in its eponymous book, warning children "the word will get out if you broke a rule." It's "see something, say something" for the under-10 crowd, a holiday take on the spy's old canard that if you haven't done anything wrong, you don't have anything to hide.
The modern Santa myth has long centered on remote observation of "naughty or nice" behavior, but in its classic iteration, this is the mysterious work of an almost omniscient being. It's still questionable as a means of developing kids' self-control and moral instincts, but it lacks the elf's suggestion of persistent, in-home surveillance on a mass scale. (Is it any wonder Snopes had to debunk a satire piece claiming whistleblower Edward Snowden revealed the elf to be a successful project of the NSA?) The elf transforms Santa from a generous lesser divinity to Big Brother with reindeer.
And you don't have to take my word for this. Science agrees!
Well, University of Ontario Institute of Technology professor Laura Pinto agrees, at least. She warned against the elf's conditioning power in a paper published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, arguing the toy is "a capillary form of power that normalizes the voluntary surrender of privacy, teaching young people to blindly accept panoptic surveillance":
What is troubling is what The Elf on the Shelf represents and normalizes: Anecdotal evidence reveals that children perform an identity that is not only for caretakers, but for an external authority (The Elf on the Shelf), similar to the dynamic between citizen and authority in the context of the surveillance state. Further to this, The Elf on the Shelf website offers teacher resources, integrating into both home and school not only the brand but also tacit acceptance of being monitored and always being on one's best behavior — without question. [CCPA]
Using the elf, Pinto summarized, teaches kids "a bigger lesson" than the value of good behavior around Christmas time, "which is that it's okay for other people to spy on you, and you're not entitled to privacy."
This may seem an overreaction to a harmless Christmas toy — and perhaps it would be, were the surveillance state not so insidious. A century ago, the Elf on the Shelf might have been a relatively harmless addition to the cast of Santa's more punitive companions.
But technological advancements have made mass surveillance possible at a scale that seemed unimaginable just a few decades ago. Even smart appliances are increasingly capable of spying. Portions of China already operate in a panopticon state, and what China has pioneered — the facial recognition now, and perhaps the social credit system in the future — ostensibly liberal democratic nations like the United Kingdom and the United States are hastening to imitate.
None of this is normal, and it is not okay — but it might feel that way if you spent your formative years being told surveillance is a good way to prove to a powerful authority figure what a nice and deserving person you are. That's a problem, because concern about mass surveillance is not the stuff of tin foil crackpots and conspiracy theorists. This is a real threat to our privacy and civil liberties, and history shows it will harm socially and politically vulnerable communities the most.
I'm pregnant with twins, and I have no doubt I will feel the pull of Santa and the Elf on the Shelf as a tool of parental coercion a few years from now. But I won't teach my kids to believe in either, because I won't want them to be good just to get presents, and I certainly don't want them to think surveillance is acceptable, even in an elfin Christmas package.