Without fail, each time I set up my kids to watch a children's video on YouTube, they navigate to videos of kids and adults unboxing and playing with toys. And every time, I'm shocked at how many views these kinds of videos get – often in the millions, sometimes in the tens of millions, even over 100 million.
This style of video was originally geared toward adults, with unboxers opening tech gadgets to provide a realistic preview and review of expensive products. But it found a more lucrative audience in toddlers. Top unboxers can earn six or seven figure incomes from ad revenue and appearance fees.
Why do kids find these videos so fascinating?
Personally, I equate them to the infomercials that I used to watch as a kid. I was fascinated by the transformation of a plain old jean jacket into a bedazzled beauty and intrigued by every kitchen gadget that Ron Popeil hawked. I marveled at how Ginsu knives and the Miracle Blade glided through a ripe tomato after hacking through shoe leather. In essence, the element of reveal that these infomercials offered entranced me. This is partly what makes unboxing videos so interesting to today's youngest generation.
There appear to be a few other reasons, too.
The pace is slow and focused on a single task, like opening a Kinder Egg or shaping Play Doh into a princess dress. The simplicity is appealing to young children who are processing so much new information each day.
It's the same reason kids love repetition and why pauses in shows like Blue's Clues, which are meant to solicit responses from the kids watching at home, feel a few beats too long to adults. Toddlers need a little extra time to make sense of the world. Unboxing videos are their equivalent to listening to smooth jazz and sipping an espresso.
A typical video is three to five minutes long, which is perfect for a young child's attention span, so children stay interested from start to finish. At the same time, YouTube queues up related videos, making it easy for kids to watch them continuously. And, trust me, they do keep watching.
Based on my personal experience, I know this to be true. If I let her (and sometimes I do), my three-year-old will zone out for over an hour, watching perfectly manicured hands open brightly colored boxes, listening to the crinkle of packaging, and being lulled by the narration of a pleasant off-camera voice.
One hypothesis: These videos trigger the pleasure centers in a child's brain, which may have various effects. Some enjoy them because it mimics the experience of opening the toys themselves, and what kid doesn't love to open a present?
Another idea is that the set-up of these videos – the focused attention on a mundane task, the narration, the ambient sounds of clicks and crackles as toys are unboxed and assembled – trigger an autonomous sensory meridian response (ASMR) for certain children. This induces feelings of relaxation, the same way watching Bob Ross paint happy trees is so boring, yet also wonderful.
This point is obvious, but no less important. Each video features mainstream characters, and this is not by accident. Toy marketers send their products to unboxers to open because this form of advertising is inexpensive, but effective. The familiarity of the toys plays up on children's fantasies to actually own them.
As much as unboxing videos may invoke immediate feelings of relaxation for the children watching them, they may also prompt kids to imagine how they might play with the toys.
This is true for my daughter. Her favorite videos are of Disney Princess Magiclip dolls because she already has a few (okay, six). After watching a video, she'll sometimes mimic what she's seen by lining up her dolls and talking aloud as she swaps their dresses.
So is it safe for kids to watch these videos? I couldn't find any studies saying it isn't. It is up to us parents to use our judgment to regulate their consumption. The American Academy of Pediatrics advises setting screen time limits based on your child's age and to take the time to watch what they're watching. If that's not always possible, activate parental controls on YouTube to prevent kids from navigating to less appropriate videos.
If you're about to Google how you, too, can earn millions of dollars by opening toys for a living, stop and think about all the toys already cluttering your home. Then, slowly back away from the search box.