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Why Sit on Santa's Lap, When You Can Use an App?
From the Wall Street Journal of Sun, 21 Dec 2014 20:07:05 EST

When 3-year-old Justin Webb wanted to talk to Santa this year, he knew exactly how to find the jolly old elf. After all, the tech-savvy toddler has been video chatting on his tablet computer since he was 2.

“Can I call him?” he asked his mother, Tashyia Webb.

So Ms. Webb, an administrative assistant in Durham, N.C., downloaded a FaceTime app that allowed Justin to video-chat Santa, and “there Santa was—his face, his beard, on the big screen in our living room,” she said.

Ms. Webb, like many parents today, is ditching some of the old-school Christmas traditions like letter writing or visits to the mall in favor of a more digitally proficient Mr. Claus. With children glued to screens at ever-earlier ages—the average age of initial interaction is 11 months, according to one study—a raft of digital services have emerged to put Santa in the palm of their little hands.

The new Cyber Santa juggles a full schedule: Texting, calling and video chatting, often for a price. Some services cost up to $30 for quality St. Nick time. At least 10 Twitter accounts purport to originate from the North Pole, boasting hundreds of thousands of followers each. One account, @OfficialSanta, greets followers with a profile picture that often changes, featuring everything from an easygoing Santa sporting red sunglasses to a smug Santa flashing his business card.

Indeed, Cyber Santa at times seems to push the boundaries of what could strictly be called the Christmas spirit. Rival account @santa, amid his own tweets to celebrities and musicians, last year tweeted: “For the last time I am not kidnapping a member of a boy band for you.”

The 99-cent App “Talking Santa,” in addition to allowing children to talk to an animated St. Nick, allows them to run him over with a snowball and, when the “violence” setting is turned on, slap him.

Some sociologists and child-development experts warn the technology puts the magic of Christmas in jeopardy. If children treat Santa as they would any classmate—constantly texting or calling or tweeting at him—then what makes Santa special?

“It normalizes Santa,” said Markella Rutherford, associate professor of sociology at Wellesley College in Wellesley, Mass. “The magic of writing a letter to Santa is that he lives in this faraway place, and that you can still get the Christmas letter to him. If you’re always communicating through your iPad, then talking to Santa [on your iPad] is not so magical.”

Other experts, like Jen Schradie, a sociologist and postdoctoral research fellow at the Toulouse School of Economics in France, say it is no big deal: The digitized Santa revolution is ultimately good, giving more children access to Santa. (Père Noël and Papá Noel can FaceTime with children in French or Spanish, too.)

Plus, Dr. Schradie said, if Santa doesn’t exist anyway, it may not even matter how we communicate with him.

Mostly, experts warn the technology leaves room for error. “You risk them clicking on or seeing something that’s going to tell them Santa doesn’t exist,” said Dr. Susan Newman, a social psychologist based in Metuchen, N.J. Nearly 370,000 Google searches for the phrase “Is Santa real?” were made in December 2013, according to tracking service Google AdWords.

Christmas traditionalists say business for old-fashioned Santa is still booming. Volume of letters to Santa remains strong, according to a spokeswoman for the U.S. Postal Service, who estimated post offices across the U.S. still receive millions of letters each year—many of which are answered by employees and volunteers.

Demand for Santas at SantaForHire.com, a company that has provided more than 100 of them for malls and events for 15 years, is “as high as ever,” said Donna Camp, the company’s operations manager. She added that the growth in Cyber Santa isn’t a threat. “It’s not real unless you can actually see him,” she said.

Yet families are still flocking to technology, some abandoning old-fashioned traditions altogether.

“Mall Santas are an endangered species,” said Gregg Spiridellis, CEO of JibJab Media Inc., an entertainment company that owns “Hello Santa,” a video-chat service that, for $29.99, lets children talk to a live Santa actor for unlimited time. Mall Santas are “catatonic—ignorant about what kids’ names are.”

For some, Cyber Santa at least beats standing in line for hours with cranky toddlers, many of whom end up wailing on Santa’s lap anyway.

“I’d be very much OK with doing only FaceTime,” said Angie Bryson, a mom of two from Charleston, S.C. “They actually get more time this way, and they’re actually having a conversation with Santa, rather than being moved along by the elves at the mall.”

Ms. Bryson said her family tried mall visits and letter-writing but, “it didn’t have an impact at all.” So she signed up for a FaceTime service operated by small business Teacups and Trucks in Charleston that, for $18, gave her children 10 minutes of screen time with Santa. She sent along information about her two daughters: their names, ages, how the youngest lost a tooth, how the oldest was struggling to ride a bike.

“Santa comes on and he’s asking for high-fives, he knows their names, he asked about the Tooth Fairy—he’s the real deal,” Ms. Bryson said. “And my kids were totally enamored. My 3-year-old even kissed the screen.”

For a cheaper Santa fix, parents can try texting services, including textsanta.net, a website that will send one text from Santa for a little less than $5. If parents don’t write their own, the service takes the lead: “I would’ve txtd u sooner but silly Rudolph 8 my cell phn. I Can’t wait 2 bring u ur gifts, luv Santa,” reads one automated message.

Or there is the DIY approach. Carrie Swain, a Rocky River, Ohio, mother of three, says having Santa on speed dial has its perks.

“When they act up I’ll say, ‘I’m texting Santa right now!’ ” said Ms. Swain. “And to them, Santa is godlike, so just a threat can work.”

When it isn’t enough, she fires off a text, much to her children's horror. But formal services are “super expensive,” she says, so she has her own ploy. She switches her husband’s name to “Santa” on her phone. “My husband will be in the other room and text back, ‘I’m watching you! You better get along!’ ”



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