Parenthood

Unboxing videos are some of the most-watched clips on YouTube, receiving millions of views every month. Now, experts are comparing the phenomenon to 'toddler crack'...

An extreme comparison you ask? Not in my house. Every time I allow my children to watch children's videos on YouTube (normally under their initial pretence that they will watch something innocuous like Woolie and Tig or Topsy and Tim), I find that they sneakily navigate to videos of kids and adults unboxing and playing with toys.

When I inevitably bust them watching what has become known in our house as 'other people's new toys', I ask them 'why are you watching that rubbish?' but there is often no response; it's like they go into an unboxing trance. My kids would watch this crap for absolutely hours on end if they were allowed to do so.

Unboxing videos actually originated as a medium for adults to demonstrate new techie gadgets and sought-after high-end products. However, it quickly transpired that a much younger audience was far more lucrative, with top unboxers pulling in seven-figure incomes from advertising revenue, appearances, and sponsorship.

On one level, I kind of get it. I mean, who amongst us has not sat mesmerised and slack-jawed watching the likes of 'I'm Barry Scott' presenting hypnotic informercials for spiralizers, NoNo hair removal, Penali pens or abrollers? Watching a ballpoint pen slicing into a tin can is pretty impressive at the end of the day.

But it turns out that I'm not alone in my (strong) dislike of toy unboxing videos. The global social media phenomenon is now causing significant concern for parents and other child welfare advocates, with new research concluding that it engages children beyond passive viewing and recommending regulation to address it.

Professors Stuart Cunningham and David Craig, who specialise in media studies, recently published a research paper entitled Toy unboxing: Living in a(n unregulated) material worldProfessor Cunningham says that the phenomenon is generating 'moral panic' amongst parents:

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"The rapid growth and popularity of toy unboxing - videos of the opening, assembling and demonstration of children's toys, often by children, across social media platforms - is definitely generating some moral panic but new technologies for children's media tend to do that.

Some people call it 'toddler crack' and regulation is obviously needed but there is also empowerment for children involved and business opportunities that bring families together in a common enterprise."

According to Cunningham, unboxers are a subset of social media entertainment content creators:

"They can be adults but many are children unboxing and reviewing toys and they are extraordinarily popular. Unboxing emerged as a genre as early as 15 years ago but once YouTube was launched in 2005 it has gone through the roof and is one of the most popular online genres of all, growing at a rate of 871 percent since 2010.

In that time the genre has diversified from adult electronics to children's toys, which is the most popular segment in that field of social media entertainment."

The YouTube channel Fun Toyz Collector has nine million subscribers and features a pair of hands opening boxes and assembling toys with a childlike female voiceover. There are many more such channels including one of Australia's most viewed YouTube channels, FluffyJet Productions, which has more than three million subscribers and has attracted more than three billion views since its creation in 2010.

Professor Cunningham says that government regulators have been slow to catch on and the near-global nature of digital platforms make it difficult for there to be consistency from one country to the next:

"Child creators are playing an increasingly central role. The channel Ryan ToysReviews stars a six-year-old and was launched in 2015. Within one year it was the second largest channel on YouTube (behind Justin Bieber) with 645 million views.

Another, EvanTubeHD, hosted by a 10-year-old, has more than four million subscribers and billions of views. Like other young stars he is a multi-platform entrepreneur with two other YouTube channels, a line of merchandise and followers on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, all of which is making him and his family millions of dollars."

Image: YouTube/EvanTubeHD

Cunningham says that issues of product placement and endorsements are also arising:

"YouTube has self-regulated regarding children's access, privacy and advertising, and although they allow product placements and endorsements they require creators be transparent about these.

Many child advocates want to see greater regulation and unfortunately discount the possibility that these videos may also be instructional, education, or simply communicative and fostering peer-to-peer interactions between child creators and viewers.

There is a strong belief children are being exploited but that is ignoring the business model and creative practices involved in the professionalisation of amateur content creators, be they kids or adults. Unboxing represents a whole new brand of marketing that can have far greater reach than traditional marketing. Companies are beating down the door of the kids who are doing it best.

Unboxing videos can work for young children as a form of peer-to-peer communication and for some families as small businesses."

Are your kids fans of unboxing videos? Let us know in the Facebook comments.

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parenting, kids and tech, unboxing videos, unboxing