Is Elf on the Shelf Big Brother?

Popular toy has its detractors as a symbol of surveillance society

In the 21st century, someone’s always watching you.

Consider the traffic enforcement cameras that dish out a speeding ticket the moment you pass that slowpoke in the periwinkle blue Prius.

Or how about the surveillance cameras hanging from poles on every street corner, scrutinized by unknown watchers in dimly lit rooms.

Then there’s the National Security Agency’s collection of millions of phone records, or the government’s constant scrutiny of social media — yes, yours, too.

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Then consider what might be the biggest threat to privacy the American public has ever known: the all-seeing, all-knowing sentinel whose gaze never wavers. The entity that maintains a state of constant readiness to immediately report the slightest indiscretion to the Man. The man named … Santa.

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Yes, we’re talking about the Elf on the Shelf.

Laugh if you like, but don’t underestimate the Elf. Sure, he (or she) might look benign with those rosy cheeks and wee little hat. But don’t be fooled by the fact that he weighs (slightly) less than Nicole Richie.

Not since Skynet sent Arnold Schwarzenegger back in time to take out Linda Hamilton have we faced such a threat to our personal security from an unstoppable, unyielding menace. And to think, we actually let this creepy little spy into our homes — and pay hard-earned money for the privilege.

You might think the criticism is going a little too far. After all, the Elf on the Shelf is just an adorable holiday tradition, right? Granted, it’s a self-appointed “tradition” that’s only a decade old.

Related: The Best Holiday Traditions

In 2005, Carol Aebersold and her daughter Chanda Bell self-published their book “The Elf on the Shelf: A Christmas Tradition,” including the Elf doll with every purchase.

As the story goes, the Elf is a scout who watches over events in people’s homes. Each night after the family has gone to bed, he flies back to the North Pole to brief Santa Claus on the events of the day, both good and bad.

Some might consider the Elf on the Shelf to be innocent fun. To them, the doll adds a little twist to pre-Christmas festivities and provides a light reminder to the kids. Watch your P’s and Q’s if you want to find an Xbox One (instead of new socks and underwear) under the tree on Christmas Day.

But some people consider the Elf a threat, and they’re serious about it.

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In a 2012 Psychology Today article, philosophy professor David Kyle Johnson claimed that “playing an elaborate joke on your children” by using the Elf could “significantly (erode) their ability to trust you.”

Digital technology professor Laura Pinto went several steps further in an interview last year with the Washington Post.

“(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,” she said.

Pinto, who coauthored an academic paper on the subject, said her concerns are shared by actual families. She told the Post that parents “routinely contact her to say they changed the rules of the game after it made their families uneasy.”

Not to be outdone, one op-ed writer even compared the Elf to the villainous Chucky doll who first appeared in the horror film “Child’s Play,” which seems like a bit of a stretch, considering the Elf’s comparative lack of, you know, murdering people.

Then again, the book-and-toy combination has annual sales of $10 million, and there doesn’t appear to be a single story about anyone whose childhood was ruined by the Elf on the Shelf. Most parents are more likely to be concerned about the fact that their kids won’t look up from a phone or a tablet for more than a few seconds than the presence of a pixie-faced doll for a few weeks.

Related: St.Nick: 5 Things You Never Knew

And ultimately, those who oppose the Elf on the Shelf can feel heartened that he’s paid a terrible price for his supposedly creepy mission. Taking pictures of the Elf in shockingly inappropriate positions has been a big social media meme in recent years.

In other words, don’t let the kids Google “Elf on the Shelf meme.” You can thank us later.

So if the Elf actually does fly home for a debrief with Santa every night, he has some truly terrible things to report. And it’s safe to assume every conversation ends with this: “Please don’t make me go back.”

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