Is “Elf on the Shelf” Normalizing Surveillance for Children?

The “Elf on the Shelf” toy has become a popular Christmas tradition in many households, with the small figurine serving as a mischievous scout for Santa Claus, reporting back on the behavior of children during the holiday season. However, some people have raised concerns that the toy may be conditioning children to accept the concept of surveillance, particularly in light of recent debates over government surveillance and privacy.

The titular elf is hidden by parents in different locations around the house leading up to Christmas. The tradition involves children searching for the elf’s new location each morning and trying to guess where it will be hidden next. The Elf on the Shelf tradition is based on a 2004 book by Carol Aebersold and Chanda Bell, and it has become popular in many households around the world.

Some privacy organizations have criticized the toy for potentially teaching children to accept being monitored by an unseen authority figure. Critics argue that the toy normalizes surveillance and that children should be taught that “no one should be looking at you in your bedroom without consent.”

Laura Pinto, a professor at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology, and Selena Nemorin, a post-doctoral fellow at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia, co-authored a piece on the elf. They write:

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 behaviour–without question.

It is an interesting and worthwhile argument. However, absent empirical evidence that Elf on the Shelf negatively affects childhood development in relation to surveillance, this argument appears to be a stretch. There is not a strong enough nexus between the Elf on the Shelf and complacency or admiration toward state surveillance. There are credible arguments that the elf is not a helpful parenting tool, but that is not really the point. 

It is important to recognize that the Elf on the Shelf is just a toy, and it is not intended to teach children about the concept of surveillance or the surveillance state. The toy’s purpose is simply to add a bit of magic and excitement to the holiday season, and it is not meant to be taken literally or as a model for real-world behavior.

Furthermore, the Elf on the Shelf does not actually “report” on the behavior of children in the same way that a surveillance system might. The toy is not equipped with any kind of monitoring or tracking technology, and it does not have the ability to transmit information to anyone. 

Instead, the Elf on the Shelf relies on the imagination of children and adults to bring it to life. It serves as a way for families to have fun and create lasting memories together.

Matt Beard of The Guardian writes, “For another, the Elf on the Shelf doesn’t use fear and promises of safety to gain people’s comfort with surveillance and data gathering; it uses fun.”

In short, the Elf on the Shelf is likely just a harmless and enjoyable holiday tradition. It is not conditioning children to accept the surveillance state. While it is important to be aware of and concerned about issues related to privacy and surveillance, it is also important to recognize that the Elf on the Shelf is simply a playful and innocent part of the holiday season and is probably not a cause for concern.

Jonathan Hofer is a Research Associate at the Independent Institute. He has written extensively on both California and national public policy issues. He holds a BA in political science from the University of California, Berkeley. His research interests include privacy law, student privacy, local surveillance, and the impact of emerging technologies on civil liberties.
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