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.

Flashlight, App & Halloween

Should we carry a flashlight when the smartphone can light things up for us? Sometimes a redundant ‘Yes.’

This is a list of everyday activities, for example, a calculator, that we now perform with phone apps instead of with a separate device.
The Apps Take Over!

Dear Ms. Smartphone: We are getting ready for Trick ‘O Treat and have a small family disagreement. My kids (Sponge Bob and Princess) believe that the flashlight on our phones will be sufficient at night. I am old-school, raised in the U.K. and insist that we bring battery-operated flashlights (torches in U.K. speak). Your thoughts? Laurent, Berkeley

Dear Laurent: First and foremost, I hope that Sponge Bob and Princess have a happy and safe adventure. As you get ready for Halloween, it’s great to use this family time to talk with kids about phones.

There are several reasons why you should carry a separate flashlight this Halloween. It will illuminate a wider area, and the batteries will out-last those on a smartphone. But the important reason is ‘redundancy.”


As we come to rely more and more on apps to perform everyday functions (the image speaks loudly!) we need to stay acquainted with older, mechanical methods. Put another way, you want to have both old-fashioned flashlights and newer LED ones in your earthquake safety kit, along with a spare battery or solar charger for your phone. The need for redundancy is a vital lesson for digitally minded kids. It’s particularly important when the wifi network and/or cellular service are both down.


In researching this illuminating topic (!) I came across two more issues. First, beware if you need to download a flashlight app to an older phone. Apparently these apps, particularly on Android phones, can ask for up to 55 permissions to read the phone status, view Internet connections, and have full network access. So consider with your kids the privacy concerns, and speak up for digital security.

Second, it’s not clear that the flashlight app will work at night when you also need to take pictures. Both the flashlight and built-in camera flash need that pulse of light. Since you will want to to record the adventures of Sponge Bob and Princess, it’s best to also carry the torch.

Safe Walk to School or Phone?

Mom worries about using
phones and earbuds when kids walk to school.

This is a logo for safe routes to school in Marin County, Ca.

Dear Ms. Smartphone: A Mom question- do you think it’s safe for an 11 year old that walks to school to have a phone? There are several big streets to cross, and I worry that he will be looking at his phone instead of the road. My son says everyone has a phone and most of the kids do walk to school in our neighborhood. D.D., Tiburon

Dear D.D.: A couple of thoughts on the question you pose. First, congratulations on living in a neighborhood where children can walk to school. Many schools, including the one in your town, have Safe Routes to School programs and you can get more involved with their training. Two communities I know of, Honolulu, Hi. and Montclair, Ca. have banned pedestrians from using phones and earbuds when crossing intersections, but it is not clear that there is much enforcement.

That said, don’t over-worry. Talk over the safety issues with your son and make a ‘compact’ with him to follow the advice from Safe Routes to School. Personally, I would threaten to take the phone away if you find he uses it while crossing streets. Explain that he needs to focus for the full time.

There is a lot of confusion around phones and pedestrian safety. On the one hand, the percent of traffic deaths involving pedestrians has soared from 12% to 16% between 2008 and 2018. During the same time period phone ownership surged, and car safety improved. However, this could be a spurious correlation. Seventy five percent of the pedestrian fatalities occur after dark. It is also known that 32% or more of the ped fatalities are alcohol related. As in distracted driving, it’s hard to get the ‘real’ rate when phones (or marijuana/drugs) are involved.

You are right to question whether kids, phones, and walking mix well. One obvious point is to make safety and phones an everyday lesson, and make it a new discussion point with the November 3 switch to Daylight Savings Time.