Naughty or nice? It's not that simple...

Researchers found that socio-economic deprivation is a significant factor in whether Santa Claus visits kids in hospitals.
Researchers found that socio-economic deprivation is a significant factor in whether Santa Claus visits kids in hospitals.PHOTO: REUTERS

Contrary to the popular belief that children who are "nice" and not "naughty" receive gifts from Santa Claus on Christmas Day, a visit from him could actually have to do with socio-economic factors rather than child behaviour.

A study surveying 186 hospital paediatric departments in Britain found that the odds of Santa not visiting were significantly higher in areas with socio-economic deprivation in income, employment, health, education and housing.

In contrast, there was no association of Santa visits with school absences or youth conviction rates in the area.

The researchers had correlated the information about Santa's visits with possible influencing factors, including local school absence rates and youth conviction rates - as a proxy measure of "naughty" behaviour - as well as socio-economic deprivation in the area.

Their findings were published in the Christmas edition of the BMJ - an issue devoted to articles that are quirky, amusing or creative, but all scientifically sound.

The researchers took it upon themselves to take a scientific look at which factors may influence a visit from Father Christmas, after noting that "no empirical research exists" to confirm whether or not Santa Claus gives presents to children who are nice and not naughty.

They even looked at whether Santa visits to paediatric units had anything to do with the hospitals' distance to the North Pole, but found no association, according to a statement by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, which conducted the study.

The authors acknowledged study limitations such as lack of data on the quality of whisky left in hospitals, the availability of chimneys and free reindeer parking spaces at hospitals.

They recommend employing local Santas to target more poorly represented regions.

"Santa's commitment to bringing presents to children across the world in a 24-hour period is legendary," said Dr Jarvis Chen, one of the study's authors.

"But our study shows that socio-economic deprivation presents structural barriers to cheer that challenge even Santa's preternatural abilities.

"This speaks to the continued need for policies and interventions to address socio-economic deprivation and inequities in the UK and worldwide."

Dr John Park, the study's lead author, added: "Normally we would hope our research reaches the widest possible audience.

"But on this occasion, we call for caution in discussing the results, especially in front of children, for the sake of worried parents worldwide."

Samantha Boh

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 23, 2016, with the headline 'Naughty or nice? It's not that simple...'. Print Edition | Subscribe