Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Is that little Elf - Big Brother?

To professor, others, the shelf sitter teaches privacy surrender.

The ELF ON THE SHELF IMAGE from the official website
The ELF ON THE SHELF IMAGE from the official websiteRead more

For some, the Elf on the Shelf doll, with doe-eyed gaze and cherubic face, has become a whimsical holiday tradition, one that helpfully reminds children to stay out of trouble in the lead-up to Christmas.

For others - like digital technology professor Laura Pinto - the Elf on the Shelf is "a capillary form of power that normalizes the voluntary surrender of privacy, teaching young people to blindly accept panoptic surveillance and" (deep breath) "reify hegemonic power."

The latter perspective is detailed in "Who's the Boss," a paper published by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives, in which Pinto and coauthor Selena Nemorin argue that the doll is preparing a generation of children to uncritically accept "increasingly intrusive (albeit whimsically packaged) modes of surveillance."

Before you burst out laughing, know that Pinto comes across as extremely friendly and not at all paranoid on the phone. She's also completely serious.

"The Elf on the Shelf" is both a doll and a book that tells a Christmas-themed story explaining how Santa Claus keeps tabs on who is naughty and who is nice.

The book describes elves hiding in children's homes each day during the holidays to monitor behavior, returning to the North Pole each night with a report.

Because we live in a world grappling with corporate smartphone surveillance, behavior management apps in the classroom, and private-communication intercepts by governments, Pinto - a digital technology professor at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology - sees the dolls as one development among many threatening our collective definition of privacy.

If she's right, in all likelihood she's fighting a losing battle. The Elf book sold more than 6 million copies and joined the Macy's Thanksgiving parade last year, according to the Daily Mail.

"I don't think the elf is a conspiracy and I realize we're talking about a toy," Pinto told the Washington Post. "It sounds humorous, but we argue that if a kid is OK with this bureaucratic elf spying on them in their home, it normalizes the idea of surveillance and in the future restrictions on our privacy might be more easily accepted."

Until the introduction of Elf on the Shelf, Santa's helpers had always been relegated to the toy workshop, Pinto said. After the story and toy were introduced by Chanda Bell, a onetime Atlanta reading teacher, the traditional narrative changed to include the hiding, surveillance, and back-and-forth travel, Pinto said.

"As evidenced by the millions of books and dolls sold," the Toronto Star writes, "the story has become a cultural phenomenon, with parents littering their social media feeds with photos of the elf in strange places."

The more Pinto read about the doll and its rules, the more she began to feel that the game resonated with the purpose of the infamous panopticon, Jeremy Bentham's 18th-century design for a model prison (a central tower in a circular structure, surrounded by cells that made it impossible for prisoners to know if they were being watched).

Pinto said she's not the first person to be troubled by Elf on the Shelf's surveillance. She's said parents routinely contact her to say they changed the rules of the game. And many kids, she said, intuitively feel that spying and being a tattletale is wrong.

"A mom e-mailed me and told me that the first day they read the elf book and put the elf out, her daughter woke up crying because she was being watched by the elf," she said. "They changed the game so it wouldn't scare the child."