The Elf on the Shelf trend shows parents at their worst

The Elf on the Shelf trend shows parents at their worst

When did we collectively agree that being cruel to children for content on social media was acceptable?

Maybe it’s the Scrooge in me, or maybe it’s the fact I’ve never been a fan of living out family moments on social media, but the Elf on the Shelf trend on TikTok has been a growing source of irritation to me - and plenty of others, it seems - over recent years.

You've probably seen clips on social media of parents pranking their kids in the name of festive fun, and the social media craze has its roots in 2005, with the publication of The Elf on the Shelf by Carol Aebersold and her daughter Chanda Bell.

For many, of course, Elf on the Shelf is still a bit of innocent fun, but over time it’s been co-opted by attention seeking people to make it all about them, and not about the kids at all.

Why even post on Instagram? Why not just keep it a special thing just the family can enjoy? It’s got to the point where it’s attracting the ire of many internet users – and not just Christmas curmudgeons like me.

One mother previously sparked a backlash after being accused of going too far. In an Instagram video, the American woman shared that one of her pranks involved cutting a lock of each of her child’s hair as they slept and blaming it on the elf.

Despite the disclaimer that “no kids were harmed in the making”, she was slammed by other Instagram users for the stunt.

One concerned viewer wrote: “I just think things like this must breed distrust and is a total violation of safety and respect. I get it’s for fun and a joke but what does this teach children tbh.”

As well as being pretty cruel in plenty of cases, it can be dangerous too – one woman previously urged others to not follow her husband's lead after his Elf on the Shelf display almost burned down the house.

In a resurfaced viral clip that's racked up 44.1 million views, the woman showed the little elf positioned on their light fixture, with his face burned from the heat of the lightbulb.

Speaking about the intention behind her popular book, The Elf on the Shelf author Bell previously said that she envisioned it like a “simple game of hide and seek”.

“The elf will watch us during the day, report to Santa at night, and in the morning before kids wake up, the elf flies back from the North Pole and lands on a different spot in the house,” Bell said. “They move around the house, they engage with families, hopefully they bring lots of joy and lots of fun.”

So, mums and dads around the world would help kids to get excited for Christmas by moving them around various places in the house, keeping the magic of the festive period alive.

So far, so wholesome, but Bell also made clear back then that the elves are not intended to be mischievous at all – and the idea of the elves teasing children did not originate from the book.

It seems like it's all the invention of the viral age. Dr Alice Vernon, of Aberystwyth University’s department of English and creative writing, recently spoke about the pressures that some parents feel to up the stakes for social media content – even comparing the craze to the behaviour of poltergeist ‘victims’.

Vernon said: “I don’t think the elf on the shelf is drastically harmful in itself, and in most cases genuinely is just a bit of fun, but when it’s done purely for social media clout (for the praise of other adults, not for the enjoyment of children), as a significant part of the trend now seems to be, I think there’s a risk of it inducing anxiety and attention-seeking behaviour in much the same way as poltergeist ‘victims’ were always trying to perform phenomena that were more impressive than the last.

“The elf is increasingly being caught doing things a child would get in trouble for doing, which seems to contradict the point of it all. It stops being about the kids, and becomes about the parents always chasing greater levels of social media attention. On a personal level, I just think they’re creepy little things.”

For me, at least, I couldn’t agree more.

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