Imagine if every school in Australia introduced comprehensive surveillance technology coupled with facial recognition, and was able to assign a score to each student based on how good a “school citizen” they were.

Students could access an app that provided them with feedback on things they’d done, or failed to do, throughout the day. The day-to-day data could then be collected and a general character assessment made of the child on, let’s say, a year-by-year basis. At the end of the year, maybe at presentation night, students would be told if they’d been “good” school citizens or not.

I’m going to go out on a limb and suggest most people would find this idea pretty repugnant. Many would see echoes of China’s oppressive social credit system. Words like “Orwellian” would be thrown around with reckless abandon.

Just don’t tell that to the families around the world for whom Christmas involves a character check from Santa Claus. Certainly don’t tell the 11 million-odd who have “adopted’” an Elf on the Shelf and will have dusted it off for the season.

If you haven’t heard of it, the Elf on the Shelf explains how Santa is able to see you when you’re sleeping and know when you’re awake. Manufactured by Creatively Classic Activities and Books, the Elf on the Shelf is a tool used by families to add some more wonder and fun to the Christmas season.

Parents move the elf around, and kids look to see where it will appear next. They’re often also told that because they don’t know where the elf is or what the elf is watching, they’d better make sure they’re behaving themselves. After all, the elf’s job is to report back to Santa.

That’s right. Santa has an army of tiny, surprisingly mobile little snitches embedded in every home, watching, collecting data, feeding it back to the big guy. For some families, the elf also leaves handy notes for the kids, to make sure they stay on St Nick’s good side. “I don’t like it when you don’t share your toys. I don’t want to have to tell Santa about this behaviour,” reads one note a parent shared online.

Social credit be damned. Santa had it figured out this whole time!

We tend to be more sceptical of surveillance when it comes to our kids. For instance, recent trials of facial recognition in Victorian schools have been met with human rights concerns and academic criticism. When Mattel developed Aristotle, a digital assistant to be given to newborn children who would grow and develop alongside them, it was pulled from the market for privacy concerns. Even tools like GPS tracking apps are the subject of general debate and controversy.

There are good reasons for these concerns. Law professor Julie E Cohen argues that “privacy fosters self-determination” and that it is “shorthand for breathing room to engage in the processes of boundary management that enable and constitute self-development”.

So, not only does the collection of children’s data put them at risk if that data falls into the wrong hands, there’s a stifling effect on children’s development when they feel like they’re continually being watched.

But the Elf on the Shelf isn’t quite analogous to China’s mass surveillance. For one thing, Santa only has about 11 million elves out there, which is amateur hour compared to China’s “Skynet” of over 200m cameras. 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.

Less like a social credit system, more Facebook. Esteemed company indeed.

Of course, Elf on the Shelf isn’t actually surveillance because – spoiler alert – it’s based on a myth. I’ve no doubt plenty of parents will dismiss what I’m saying here as unnecessary scaremongering over something that’s actually fine, fun and basically a bit of stupid play at Christmas time.

While this wouldn’t be the first time a philosopher has been accused of sucking the fun out of a situation, I’m not sure that argument cuts it.

First, the rise of “sharenting” and the pushback from children against parents who post too much information about them online indicates parents are not always the best custodians of their kids’ privacy. In general, a generation prone to oversharing on social media may not be the best judges of what lessons Elf on the Shelf is teaching.

Second, and more importantly, the effects of surveillance work even if the surveillance isn’t really happening. This was the genius of the infamous Panopticon – a prison designed by British philosopher Jeremy Bentham, where a guard tower could potentially observe any prisoner at any given time, but no prisoner could see the guard tower. It was always possible that you were being observed, which meant you behaved as though you were being observed at all times.

This logic is, of course, very creepy. It’s also very common – as another philosopher, Michel Foucault, later pointed out. You can build workplaces, schools, mental health institutions and yes, nationwide mass surveillance networks on similar principles. The concept is that the possibility of observation and judgement means there’s no need to force people to conform – they do it themselves. Arguably, China’s social credit system is the high-water mark of the logic of the Panopticon.

But the rhetoric – intentional or not – behind Elf on the Shelf has echoes of the Panopticon. It reads from the same playbook. The elf appears at random times and in random locations. It’s always possibly watching.

Whether that’s the goal parents are trying to achieve or not, we ought to be concerned about the effects of introducing and normalising this kind of behaviour monitoring and observation to kids.

As Olly Thorn, the philosopher behind Philosophy Tube tweeted: “He sees you when you’re sleeping He knows, when you’re awake, It’s a subtle, calculated technology of subjection.”

This isn’t necessarily a reason to ditch the tradition, but we can do away with the creepiness – especially as the myth becomes more and more like reality. It’s entirely possible to have an Elf on the Shelf and not play this game. Maybe the elf is just waiting for Santa to come and deliver the presents – and helps him unload the gifts. Perhaps you don’t use the elf as a tool for discipline but as a game and a story that’s played together.

Maybe you don’t need to tell the Santa story at all, but that’s another matter.

This article was first published in The Guardian Australia on 16 December, 2019.