Santa and Video Chat

Should kids have even more screen-time with a video Santa? Husband will play role.

This photo mimics a sheet of paper. At the top it says 'from the desk of Santa Claus.' In the middle it has the line from the Casablanca movie, "Here's looking at you kid."

Dear Ms Smartphone: My husband is serving overseas and suggested he would dress up as Santa for a video-chat. We have two older girls and a boy, ages 10, 8, and 2. He wants to find out what gifts they want and thinks it will be fun. I am concerned that the kids will recognize his voice and find it fake. Kaycee,San Rafael

Dear Kaycee:

It probably does not matter as long as the occasion is done with parental love and caring. You can set up a plate of virtual cookies for Santa. The full effect may depend on how well your husband can act and how realistic the background seems (think North Pole, snow and elves). Perhaps your husband can get a friend to help him set up the chat, or sub-in as the Santa?

Going to a shopping mall and having kid’s sit on a stranger’s lap always seemed odd to me. My own children only did this once or twice, yet it led to a ‘mall shopped’ photo that became a family memento.

That said, having a video conversation with Santa also strikes me as odd. Paying a stranger with white hair and a beard to have a “fake” conversation with children? But, it is a thriving business. According to a story in the Wall St. Journal, a Denver based company, “Talk to Santa” employs more than 300 Santas, costs $34.95, and will deliver more than 10,000 videos this season. The business had only 80 Santas when they launched 5 years ago. Here are links to more sites.

Santas are Everywhere!

We should not forget the historical roots. In 1841 a “life-sized Santa” was advertised by a Philadelphia store and it was a crowd pleaser. Later, the Salvation Army began to dress up unemployed men to solicit holiday donations, and then the movies helped popularize Santa, kids, and holiday pictures.

What are the advantages of chatting with a video Santa? No more squirming kids having a boring time waiting in line, fewer chances of spreading or catching a winter cold, and a high level of personalization (parents fill out a questionnaire in advance).

What are the disadvantages of the video chat? Not learning to wait your turn, not learning to handle boredom in a snaking line, not sharing larger cultural values with strangers, and an over-customized ‘just for me’ experience.

Telematics and Teens

Surprise! Having a smartphone in the car could make you a safer & better driver.

Credit: Cambridge Mobile Telematics, 2018

Dear Ms. Smartphone: Your column takes a hard stance on using smartphones in cars- they distract the driver, make them take their eyes off the road, slow down reaction times, etc. Yet, I see lots of drivers using their phones all the time. Are there circumstances when you would recommend using a smartphone in the car? Harrison, Boston

Dear Harrison: So, a big yes, and thanks for the observation. The first portable phones were called ‘car phones’ but they were suitcase sized and drivers had to pull off the road to call from them.

Today, car phones are bite-sized and an engineering advance called telematics links the car and driver.

Telematics 101

Three or four phone features on the smartphone, namely the accelerometer, the gyroscope, GPS, and compass, collect data and compile travel information.

Collectively, these are called telematics. They require giving up your location data and some privacy, but mobile tracking can make you or your teen a safer driver. Smartphones equipped with the software measure the ‘quality’ of driving.

Telematics can be a tool for parents to monitor teen driving and help teach them driver safety. They record the speed of travel, acceleration, hard braking, cornering, and the ultimate, smartphone use and distraction! There are different companies working on the software, such as Zendrive, and it is used commercially in trucking. One firm offers a telematic ‘game’ called DriveWell. Teens compete for the title of the safest driver in an annual competition sponsored by Cambridge Mobile Telematics. The app is useful for new drivers, as it helps them track if they brake too hard, corner too sharply, or exceed the speed limit.

Way to Go?

No matter whether it’s a game or everyday driving, there are savings and safety using telematics. For insurance companies, it provides a more micro-based, personalized way to set premiums. And, on the transportation horizon, counting miles traveled and time of day might edge out current funding schemes based on the gas tax and vehicle fees.

Should Family Time Stream?

Should families live-stream their holiday celebrations to those off-site?

Dear Ms. Smartphone: My Mom asked if I would stream video from our Thanksgiving dinner. Sh wants to see the kids in real-time and say hello, find out what I am making for dessert, and view the place-settings. I put out her Mom’s (my grandmother’s) special china plates and serving pieces just on Thanksgiving. These are all good reasons. Yet I am still reluctant to turn on the video during our holiday meal. Irma, Boston

A multi-generational family gathered around an oval shaped dining table that is set with formal place settings, candles, and wine glasses.
Photo Credit: Lillian Penner, author, “Grandparenting with a Purpose”

Dear Irma: First of all, what would the turkey say! There is no question that the holidays strain our digital etiquette, and that seems to begin here in November.

The good news is that when you run video, say on the phone or Ipad, you might have less contentious dialogue and more “instagram” perfect moments. We act differently when we know we are on camera. Here I am citing a review paper by Harvard Professor Ethan Bernstein. In work settings, when employees know that they are on videotape, there is less petty theft and more emphasis on customer sales and service. This is called technology based monitoring.

Do families behave differently when they are being filmed? Well, maybe on reality TV and when it comes to talking politics and sharing those skeleton-in-the-closet family secrets!

But seriously, I share your concerns about running the camera during your holiday. You didn’t say why your Mom can not come to Thanksgiving…is she very ill, serving overseas, or does she want to avoid holiday travel? The reason might matter (to some….)

That said, I worry for the future that ‘video holidays’ may become a new norm. Why spend money on three-day travel trips, burn excess fuel, and experience the inconveniences of holiday crowds if we can participate vicariously? Something will be gained, and a lot will be lost.