TORONTO – Could there be something more sinister behind the little elf sitting on the shelf who returns to the North Pole each night?

Yes, says Laura Pinto, a digital technology professor at the University of Ontario Institute of Technology.

She recently published a paper titled “Who’s the Boss” on the doll, saying the idea of it reporting back to Santa each night on the child’s behavior “sets up children for dangerous, uncritical acceptance of power structures,” according to

From her paper:

When children enter the play world of The Elf on the Shelf, they accept a series of practices and rules associated with the larger story. This, of course, is not unique to The Elf on the Shelf. Many children’s games, including board games and video games, require children to participate while following a prescribed set of rules. The difference, however, is that in other games, the child role-plays a character, or the child imagines herself within a play-world of the game, but the role play does not enter the child’s real world as part of the game. As well, in most games, the time of play is delineated (while the game goes on), and the play to which the rules apply typically does not overlap with the child’s real world.

“You’re teaching (kids) a bigger lesson, which is that it’s OK for other people to spy on you and you’re not entitled to privacy,” she tells the Toronto Star.

She calls the elf “an external form of non-familial surveillance,” and says it’s potentially conditioning children to accept the state acting that way, too.

“If you grow up thinking it’s cool for the elves to watch me and report back to Santa, well, then it’s cool for the NSA to watch me and report back to the government,” according to Pinto.

Others concur with Pinto’s theory.

“It’s a little creepy, this idea that this elf is watching you all the time,” Emma Waverman, a blogger with Today’s Parent, tells the paper. She also doesn’t like that the story uses a threat – “nice” and “naughty” lists – to produce good behavior.

“It makes the motivation to behave something that’s external,” she says. “If I’m not around or if the elf is not around, do they act crazy?”

“Children potentially cater to The Elf on the Shelf as the ‘other,’ rather than engaging in and honing understandings of social relationships with peers, parents, teachers and ‘real life’ others,” Pinto writes.

“It’s worth noting that Pinto doesn’t object to the Elf on the Shelf’s Jewish counterpart, the Mensch on a Bench, which she characterized as ‘benign.’ Unlike the elf, the mensch doesn’t report to anyone at night but stays put, watching over the Hanukkah menorah,” the paper reports.

 According to the paper, 6 million “Elf on the Shelf” dolls and books have been sold in the last 8 years.

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