“Eggs, eggs,” my then three-year-old son gabbled while pointing desperately at the iPad. “I wan a watch eggs.” Confused, I tried to work out if he was talking about a kids’ programme or some sort of pre-school game. But no, what he was actually desperate to watch was a stranger thousands of miles away unwrapping Kinder Surprise Eggs.
Welcome to the surreal world of “unboxing” videos. Where toys, sweets and games get unwrapped, torn from their packages and revealed to an online audience, made up almost exclusively of under 8s. Forget Mr Tumble, nothing can hold a child’s attention quite like a YouTube vid of a person unveiling that little yellow egg inside a Kinder Surprise.
More often than not the videos feature adults in sing-song voices and brightly coloured clothes describe in excited detail first opening the packaging, then excitedly examining the contents while music tinkles away in the background. And children can’t get enough of them.
Hardly surprising therefore that an entire industry seems to be springing up to cater for this latest of digital obsessions. According to packaging supplier, Rajapack googling the term ‘unboxing’ throws up an astonishing 51 million search results, while 1 in 5 consumers admit to having watched an unboxing video.
And there are some big bucks to be made too. Recent research reveals that unboxing videos routinely appear in the top 10 spots on most-viewed YouTube watchlists. The highest earner on YouTube is the owner of a channel dedicated to unboxing Disney Toys. DC Toys Collector is estimated to have earned $4.9million in 2014, purely from unwrapping Disney toys, and she has no affiliation whatsoever with Disney.
Clearly, there is something in this whole unwrapping-by-proxy thing, but what is it that children find so enthralling?
Nellie McQuinn, a producer at Grass Roots Media, a production company which specialises in creating digital children’s content, including unboxing videos for YouTube, suspects part of the reason that unboxing videos are so popular is down to the fact that we live in an increasingly consumer driven society.
“Choice is unlimited and children see the products all around them… on adverts, magazines, posters, pop ups, pre-rolls on YouTube,” she says.
“The average child cannot perceive of getting all the toys they want – the choice is too much, but unboxing videos give them that experience in a very personal way, without the associated consumer purchase necessary.”
Nellie explains that the videos are deliberately intimate and shot from the viewer’s perspective. “When the hands on screen unbox, it is, in the viewer’s mind, them unboxing,” she explains. “And this means they are able to collect all the latest toys, get a complete set and feel included. I believe at the heart of it, unboxing as a genre is about inclusion and the fear of missing out.”
And there is some science to back up this theory. According to Rajapack various studies have verified the existence of what has been called the “mirror neuron system”. These neurons activate not only when we perform an action ourselves, but also when we watch someone else perform that action. Hence children get a similar thrill from watching someone unwrap a new toy as they would opening it themselves. In basic terms, as little ones watch someone else carefully removing the gift packaging, their brain acts as though they’re the ones performing the action.
Parenting blogger Rachel, who writes the blog Coffee, cake, kids believes her children enjoy unboxing videos because they tap into the element of surprise. “They tune into a child’s natural curiosity to see what’s in the box,” she says. “It’s the same reason the kids love looking in the bags when I come home from the supermarket – it’s just nosiness. Plus the very few videos that I’ve sat and watched are all very bright and colourful, which of course is going to attract young children.”
Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center, also believes unboxing videos feed into a primal curiosity to know what’s hidden inside something. What’s more she believes there could be some benefits for children in watching the clips.
“For kids, handing them a toy ice cream parlour, for example, it’s already done the work for you. There’s no imagination, no building, thinking, creativity, or problem-solving,” she explains. “With these videos and other games, there’s learning: How are they putting it together? How are they using the Play-Doh? How are they making different creations?”
“We have a negative understanding of acting vicariously in our society—that you’re not doing your own living, [unboxing] is a different thing. It’s more of an exploratory learning process,” Pamela Rutledge continues.
But should we be worried about children being so fixated on unwrapping videos? Baby wellness and childcare expert, Angela Spencer is the founder of Babyopathy.com and author of Babyopathy – baby care the natural way believes there is some reason to be cautious, not least because experts suggest screen time for children should be limited, or even banned entirely.
Angela cites newly released recommendations from the Council on Communication and Media at the American Academy of Paediatrics who suggest babies under 18 months old should have no screen time at all (which includes all devices, TV etc..) and only one hour per day for children aged between two and five.
She believes that there are many detrimental effects of screen time including displaced sleep patterns, negative impacts on social interaction and disruption of developmental play. She also believes it can lead to developmental regression.
“I can understand why children may be fascinated with the ‘anticipation’ of what will be inside as it will resonate with their own experiences of being given a gift and the wonderment of what may be inside,” Angela explains. “However, this is likely to just feed the need for their own experiences and lead to a dismissive reaction when the reality of what is inside does not meet expectations.”
Angela also questions whether the watching of unwrapping videos could lead to a generation of ‘on demand’ children who need the next ‘must have’ toy all year round instead of receiving gifts on birthday or at Christmas, when they would be anticipated and appreciated.
“Instead children are needing the next ‘fix’ for their temporary state of gratification and do not want to have to wait for it!” she says.
But that doesn’t mean Angela can’t also see some positives. “For some children [unboxing videos] can help them to form a connection when they otherwise may not have done, autism for example,” she explains. “Allowing a child to re-enact and verbalise what they have watched when otherwise their verbalisation may be very little.”
Indeed, James* dad to an eight-year-old boy who suffers from autism and has speech and language difficulties credits unwrapping videos with helping to improve his son’s verbal communication.
“He watches ‘unboxing’ videos on YouTube and repeat plays videos often,” James says. “We do end up buying some of the toys featured in the videos and he plays with them intensely, acting out the video and mimicking voiceovers with astounding precision. It is truly wonderful to see progress being made in his speech and language – so we don’t discourage the watching of YouTube unwrapping videos.”
But what of the whole safety aspect? David Brock, Managing Director of LetUsFixIT recommends sticking to some safety guidelines if you are going to let your children watch unwrapping videos.
“YouTube is a platform that allows anyone to upload their own content and, while the site does have guidelines as to what is and isn’t appropriate, there are some videos on there that are more suited to a mature audience,” he warns. “Plus, it has been known for offensive videos to be uploaded with misleading titles and thumbnail images. Therefore, it’s important that you take steps to ensure your children aren’t exposed to content you would rather they didn’t see.”
David recommends monitoring your child’s YouTube viewing closely and ensuring you’re using parental controls to filter what children can see. “There’s a YouTube Kids app that can be downloaded onto a phone or tablet, and you can change the viewing settings quite easily on the main YouTube desktop site and app. By taking these measures, you’ll make it much more difficult for mature or inappropriate content to reach your kids’ devices.”
My son has tired of watching his beloved “eggs”, but my daughter will happily watch toy unwrapping videos for the entire length of her screen time allocation. While it’s easy to dismiss unboxing videos as further proof of our lives being digitally dictated or to write the practice off as being ‘weird’ or ‘silly’, I do sort of get why children find them so fascinating. Besides is it really so different to grown-ups scrolling Instagram to gawp at people’s pay-day purchases?
What do you think about unwrapping videos? Let us know @YahooStyleUK