Kids aren’t watching TV like they used to. Today, they’re all over YouTube. Videos aimed at toddlers make up some of the most watched videos on the platform, meaning they’re some of the most popular videos in the world.
But they’re not just watching lots of video. There’s also been a huge shift in how kids’ entertainment is made and consumed, thanks to the proliferation of mobile devices over the last decade. In 2011, 3% of American kids under eight years old owned their own phone, according to data from Common Sense Media. By 2017, it was almost 50%. That means for the first time, kids have real control over what they watch, when. And when you put kids in control, things can get a little weird.
One of the most popular genres of kids videos on YouTube are toy unboxing videos. But not just any toys. Kids especially love to watch people open surprise eggs (colorful plastic eggs with a mystery toy inside). Surprise eggs are everywhere on toddler YouTube. (In fact, they have spawned a cottage industry of egg-inspired toys, like Hatchimals and the hugely popular L.O.L. Surprise! dolls, this year’s top Christmas toy that tells kids to “Unbox Me!” right on the package.)
Surprise eggs are behind one of today’s biggest kids’ stars, Ryan of Ryan ToysReview. He’s an eight year-old boy who opens toys and plays with them on YouTube. With over 17 million subscribers and more than 26 billion views (more than Justin Bieber or Taylor Swift), he reportedly made $22 million dollars from his channel last year.
Ryan’s most-popular video, “HUGE EGGS Surprise Toys Challenge with Inflatable water slide” has 1.6 billion views. That’s billion, with a b.
Another hallmark of kids’ videos on Youtube are hour-long nursery rhyme compilations, typically with repetitive and (kind of creepy) 3D animations. Let’s just say, Mother Goose, these are not. But young kids can’t get enough of them.
Popular themes for toddlers on YouTube reflect what kids love, but more than that, this is what content looks like when it’s dictated by algorithms. Videos are remixed and put together in a million different ways (there are many 3D nursery rhyme videos about surprise eggs) to create an endless stream of content.
YouTube surfaces videos through its recommendation system, which analyzes users’ browsing history and other data to suggest videos it thinks will keep them watching. Creators see what’s trending and mimic it, hoping people will click. When they do, the recommendation system recommends even more of those videos, so more people make them, and so on.
After watching dozens of variations of the same thing, it starts feeling like none of them were made by humans at all.
But this massive new world of kids entertainment also raises questions about how kids are advertised to and targeted on the internet. In April, a coalition of nonprofits filed a complaint urging the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) to investigate YouTube and its parent company, Google, for violating the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) on YouTube.
Despite the many laws that exist for kids entertainment on broadcast television, COPPA is really the only law regulating kids content online. It bans any website directed at children or any site with “actual knowledge” children are on it from collecting any personal user data without parental permission.
Google says their terms of service make clear that YouTube is only intended for people over 13 and also point to YouTube Kids, the separate app for young children that doesn’t collect user data. But views from the app dwarf are dwarfed by those on the regular platform. And with so many videos aimed at nursery school-aged kids on YouTube racking up billions of views, the coalition thinks they have a strong case against the platform. If the FTC agrees, it could seek a civil penalty against Google for each violation, which could amount to billions of dollars and likely big changes to how kids videos are monetized on the platform.
If the coalition can succeed in getting YouTube to change the way it targets videos directed at young kids the weird world of kids entertainment on YouTube could start looking a lot different. At the very least, less algorithmic eggs.
Quartz News is a weekly video series bringing you in-depth reporting from around the world. Each episode investigates one story, breaking down the often unseen economic and technological forces shaping our future.
Click here for previous stories.