Is Google Killing Santa?

The searches for ‘Santa real’ spike every December, but kids might still believe.

Dec 22 2014, 12:00pm

​Image: ​Andy Smith/Flickr

​I was way too old when I finally found out the truth about Santa Claus. Spoiler alert: if you've managed to outlast even me, stop reading now.

I confirmed my shameful suspicion earlier this month while chatting with researchers who study when and why children stop believing in fairy tales like Santa Claus. The literature on the subject shows most children start to become skeptical around the age of six or seven and put it all together by eight or nine.

I was a few weeks shy of my 11th birthday.

And if Cory Morton hadn't shouted across Mrs. Vincent's 6th Grade classroom "you idiot, it's your parents!" I might still believe to this day. But I digress.

I didn't call these researchers because I needed to work through some lingering grief. I called because I wanted to know when, how, and why children figure out the truth about St. Nick and whether or not Google has made it easier for children to discover he doesn't exist. It turns out, even with the answers to life, the universe, and everything at our fingertips, Christmas magic prevails. 

Photo of the author, dressed as an elf, circa age 11

Before we look at the idea of Google spoiling the show, it helps to understand what's going on inside kids' brains when they come to learn the truth.

Cynthia Scheibe, a psychology professor at Ithaca College, has been interviewing children and adults about Santa Claus periodically since the 1980s. She said when you ask an adult how they found out Santa wasn't real, they usually point to a single event (see Cory Morton, above). But when she interviewed children who were still in the process of piecing together the truth or had just recently stopped believing, she discovered there was a more complex process going on.

"What they do is gather evidence. They kind of function like little scientists gathering data on these competing hypotheses: one is that Santa Claus brings you these presents and the other is that your parents do," Scheibe explained.

And given the evidence children are faced with, it's not absurd that they continue to believe in Santa even after they start this questioning process. To demonstrate this, Scheibe posed a question to me:

CS: Is Mr. T a real person or only make believe? What would you say?
KR: Uhh.
CS: Do you know who Mr. T is? I just realized I should check in on your age. From The A Team?
KR: Yeah, I do. The character is make believe.
CS: And the person?
KR: He's real.
CS: How do you know he's real?
KR: Uhh.
CS: See? It's not an easy question.

It's not. And children have even more evidence for the existence of Santa Claus than I had for Mr. T. Not only do their parents and the media tell them he's real, most children have actually seen Santa Claus in the flesh. I, pity, have not seen Mr. T in the flesh.

But eventually the evidence against Father Christmas's existence begins to mount and it becomes harder to accept the evidence he does exist. One by one, the magic fades from all our lives. But in an ever-connected society, are children getting hit with a dose of reality at younger ages?

When you Google: "Is Santa Claus real?" the results leave little to the imagination. Most of the top results are articles giving parents advice on how to break the news to their kids or deal with the aftermath of them figuring it out on their own.

And kids are definitely Googling it. A survey f​rom the UK found that 54 percent of children go to Google or another search engine first when they have a question, compared to 26 percent of respondents who said they ask their parents first when they have a query.

Not to mention the more common search term, "santa real," spikes every year in—you guessed it—December. But just to keep kids confused, Google also features a live "Santa tra​cker" showing St. Nick's GPS locations on Christmas Eve.

Screengrab: ​Google searches for Santa over time

Yet the average age when kids lose their belief in Santa has stayed steady over the years.

Andrew Shtulman, an associate professor of cognitive science at Occidental College, studies how children develop and modify their beliefs. He recently conducted a study—set to be published early in 2015—on whether children with a better grasp on what's possible in real life have a different belief construct when it comes to fairy tales.

He found the average age that kids stop believing to be around eight or nine, the same age as the last time Scheibe interviewed children about Santa in 2002, when Google was in its infancy.

He also found that kids who have a better grip on what's possible in our physical universe didn't necessarily stop believing in Santa, they just started coming up with more complex explanations for how Santa performs his magical acts.

"A lot of kids just sort of shrug their shoulders and say 'I don't know,' or claim it's magic," he explained in a recent phone conversation.

"But other kids tried to explain the activities. For Santa knowing if you've been naughty or nice, they claimed that he has some sort of surveillance equipment out there."

Maybe Santa is in cahoots with the NSA.

And both Schtulman and Scheibe agreed its not likely very young children would be Googling whether Santa is real anyway. For one thing, their computer skills—and often their access to the internet—are somewhat limited. But they also just wouldn't think to question his existence in the first place.

"A five-year-old won't do that any more than you would Google 'is Mr. T real?' Why would you do that?" Scheibe said, adding older children would probably just include Google results in all of the data they're already collecting.

"If they found a site that said he wasn't real, they'd have to weigh that against other places that say he is real."

Even with Google, Santa's power endures. I can only hope there are a few 11-year-olds out there somewhere resisting the urge to Google the man in red, for one more year at least. Never stop believing, kids.