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Earlier this month, Department of Experimental Psychology’s Amy Orben talked to Santa as he comes to terms with the digital world. In Santa’s WWW (Wired Winter Wonderland), where the elves are glued to their screens, Mrs. Claus’s cooking inspires emojis and Rudolf is trolling Comet, Amy offers some useful advice.

@TheRealSantaClaus: It all started when the fore-elf in the Toy Train Workshop suggested that we needed to ‘expose ourselves to the world outside "the North Pole bubble.”’ I like to keep up with the times, so we installed Wi-Fi and set up these social media accounts. But things quickly spiralled out of control. The first crisis occurred when I made an offhand reference to ‘Black Friday’ and suddenly it was everywhere! (It was supposed to be a negative, people!) And then I referred in passing to one of the Elves as ‘Snowflake’. Oh, the uproar! But the thing is, Snowflake is his name. I’m just not sure I’m ready for all this…

Amy Orben: And you are not alone. But with the digital technology revolution now touching each and every one of us, it is important for us to figure out what the potential effects of these changes are on every individual, and also on society as a whole. This is why it has become an increasingly popular topic of scientific research, and why a wide variety of researchers at Oxford are now devoting time examining it in detail.

Santa: [Sighs] I used to receive lovely hand-written wish lists – a dolly, a red bicycle, the occasional miracle – but now I’m just bombarded by people sending me (only they call it ‘reaching out’) a pointing to the Amazon home page. What, do they want all of it? Everything? And now there are all of these teen vlogger ‘influencers’ who have already ‘unboxed’ everything before it’s even under the tree. Honestly, they're worse than puppies! 

Amy Orben: Yes, in my research I look at adolescent’s use of digital devices and how it affects them. We don’t know a lot about this, but many parents and policy makers are worried about the effects of digital technologies on young people. Especially as young people are some of the most avid users of digital technology.

I talked about this in my recent interview on Radio 4 if you want to find out more. Do you find that the young are those who reach out to you most via social media?

Santa: I’m always pleased to hear from the kids and I do love my job and all my clients. But do you realise how many Instagrams I receive from their parents of plates of cookies, illuminated by fairy lights twinkling just so. Really, in your heart of hearts, do you think your plate of cookies looks that much different to every other plate of cookies? Did you really need to share?

It’s very difficult to see past a certain veneer. The old system – making a list, checking it twice – was apparently subject to something called ‘digital disruption’. Every persona is now ‘curated’. On the one hand they seem to be revealing everything, but on the other, how real is it? Naughty? Nice? How should I know? (But your holiday looked amazing!) 

So now Krampus & Krampus have been brought in as my ‘media managers’ and are trying some new things. This is their latest…

He sees you when you're Tweeting
He hears when you WhatsApp    
He knows if you swipe left or right
So you better not be Slack
Oh, you better not flame, you better not troll
Better not spam, take care when you scroll
Santa Claus is outside the EU, is exempt from GDPR, and has vast online surveillance powers! 

Oh, I don’t know. It just doesn’t seem very jolly, does it?

Amy Orben: You do seem to be worrying Santa. I have been working with colleagues around Oxford to examine the general effects of digital technology use on well-being. Interestingly, we find that the associations between using digital technology and well-being are not as bad as reported in the media. Using too much or too little digital technology is correlated with some negative effects, but those are actually quite small. Some of my most exciting results are currently in press, so I am sworn to secrecy, but I’ll send you a tweet once they are out.

Santa: Now that the Pole is wired, the reindeer are always looking at their phones. I look up and they’re all laughing at a kitten covered in tinsel. (Granted that kitten was incredibly adorable, oh it makes me giggle just thinking about it). We used to gather around the table over egg nog, spread out the map, and feel the tingle of anticipation as we plotted our course! But now do they want to rehearse the route for the Big Night? 'Nah, we'll just Google Map it.' And we know what that means: they'll pinpoint every Starbucks en route, beg to stop for Gingerbread Lattes before we even reach the Shetlands, and utterly spoil their appetites for the carrots. Should I worry about their screen time?

Amy Orben: As your stories show, time on digital devices is incredibly diverse: looking at Google Maps, watching cat videos, Skyping far-away elves is all screen time. Therefore screen time itself is a rather meaningless concept; If we look at time spent on screens in general we are often comparing apples and oranges. I have written an article about this problem in the Guardian actually. We need to focus less on how much time your reindeer spend on their screen, and more on what they do when they are using it. Only when you (and the research community too!) starts thinking about screen time in a more nuanced way, will we be able to have constructive conversations about how to make sure technology is used to the greatest positive effect.

Santa: Finally, I’ve come to realize that sometimes this stuff just makes me feel bad. My post about the 1001 best ever Christmas cracker jokes got, like, no likes. But then the time I used emojis to describe the lovely supper Mrs Claus prepared of grilled aubergine followed by peach cobbler for pudding, Blitzen couldn’t look me in the eye without laughing for weeks! I don’t get it!

At the end of the day, after perusing thousands of ‘dynamic communicators’ and 'syncretic visionaries' on LinkedIn I begin to doubt my own value in society. I mean, I’ve never crowd-sourced funding for a cookie boutique start-up. And recently it appears I’ve been ‘ghosted’ by the Ghost of Christmas Yet to Come! (As if he’s all that, so chic in his ‘deep black garment’…) And Jack Frost is evidently too cool to respond to my ‘friend’ request. How can I re-focus on the positive aspects while reducing the stress?

Amy Orben: If I knew the answer to that question I would not need to come into work anymore. Maybe you want to join in the research effort? But this aside, as there is little high-quality evidence on this subject at the moment, it is important to take time to reflect personally on how different types of social media use affect you. There is preliminary evidence that passively scrolling through your Newsfeed is not as good for you as actively engaging online by, for example, messaging your many friends, so possibly you can use that as food for thought. Also, work coming out of Oxford has shown (for adolescents at least) that traditional ‘self-care’ routines, such as getting enough sleep, have much greater positive effects on your well-being than technology use has negative effects. So you could also trust your gut instinct and try to get enough sleep during the busy holiday season…except maybe on the 24th. I’ll leave the cookies and carrots in the usual place.

Amy Orben’s newest work is currently in press at Nature Human Behaviour and Psychological Science under strict “Do not open ‘til Christmas” embargoes. You can stay updated by following Amy on @OrbenAmy.


A huge thank you to Amy Orben for her help preparing this story. 

Written by Alison Brindle, Joseph Ripp and Amy Orben.