This article was originally published online at wbur.org on February 25, 2019
Seven-year-old Noemi and 8-year-old Solana sat in front of a computer screen in their dining room in Roxbury — transfixed by a pair of hands opening toy eggs in a YouTube video. The video didn’t show an actual person, just a close-up of hands cracking the toy and chocolate eggs open. The girls were fascinated.
Solana and Noemi aren’t alone. Unboxing videos that cater to children are a massive industry online. Kids’ unboxing accounts frequently rank in the top tier of YouTube channels with the most views. Two of them have gained more than 38 billion views.
They first emerged in the early 2000s as an offshoot of adult unboxing videos, which originated as a way of reviewing mostly tech products. But today kids unboxing videos have a loyal and global following.
Some have elaborate story lines, like a kid who unboxes a mini police car and then rides around chasing bad guys. Others, like the one Noemi and Solana watched, have no story lines and simply show hands unboxing toys. And some center on a kid’s reaction after unboxing a toy.
According to Forbes, the highest paid YouTuber is a 7-year-old boy named Ryan, who’s been unboxing since he was 4 on his channel “Ryan ToysReview.” In 2018, he reportedly earned an estimated $22 million from his unboxing videos that spurred his own toy line.
“He’s not there just because the toys are great,” said Dr. Michael Rich. “He’s there because he’s engaging, he’s funny, he has what appears to be a stage mom who orchestrates a lot of this.”
Rich is the director and founder of the Center on Media and Child Health at the Boston Children’s Hospital. He’s studied how media and screens affect children for more than 30 years. He’s also an associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, associate professor of social and behavioral sciences at the Harvard School of Public Health, and practices adolescent medicine at Boston Children’s Hospital.
Rich says with or without a performance from a kid on-screen, children watching unboxing videos experience a specific kind of satisfaction.
“I think kids enjoy these videos because kids enjoy Christmas and birthdays,” Rich said. “Which is, they are vicariously gaining that surprise of ‘what’s in it, what’s in it, what’s in it? Oh wow, that’s really cool.'”
Rich added that children are also forming a one-way relationship with the YouTuber, with toys serving as the link in that relationship. “Ultimately you’re not learning ABCs, but you’re learning to want things. It feeds into the ‘give me’ culture and the way that they can show their part in this relationship or their investment in this relationship is by acquiring the product that’s being unboxed.”
Noemi and Solana’s mom, Gina Montalvo, said the girls have been watching these types of videos since they were about 2 years old.
“They wouldn’t be allowed to … have a lot of toys,” Montalvo said. “I don’t buy them a lot of toys so when they [see other kids] open up [toys on YouTube]. They love those.”
Montalvo says she checks the beginning of the videos to make sure they’re age-appropriate and puts them on in moderation. She puts them on for the girls when she needs them to sit down for a bit, like when she’s cooking dinner. “I mean, I don’t like for them to watch them all the time but I guess it’s just a part of them growing up,” she told me.
Rich said screens are a ubiquitous part of modern life. The key is to be in tune with a child’s needs.
“We need to take seriously the kids who get sucked into the Fortnite vortex or who are hooked on social media or even an unboxing video,” said Rich. “And instead of punishing, restricting, limiting, cutting it off, [we should be] understanding that it is meeting a need for them and we need to figure out how to meet it in other ways that are healthier.”
As I said goodbye to Noemi and Solana, they were captivated with an unboxing video while their toys and stuffed animals sat close by.