Kids love playing with toys. But apparently, they love watching other kids play with them, too.
That’s the appeal behind toy “unboxing” videos, which have emerged as one of the most popular genres on YouTube. They’re pretty much exactly what they sound like: kids opening up toys and putting them to use. Of the top 10 most-watched YouTube channels in the US in 2018, two—Ryan ToysReview and FunToys Collector Disney Toys Review—are toy unboxing channels, and they have racked up a combined 38.6 billion views since launching.
But unboxing videos aren’t just for children who love toys; they span a full range of products, from fashion bloggers unpacking clothes to people opening Amazon packages and tech lovers revealing their new phones. Basically, if you can buy it, there’s an unboxing video for it.
The videos may be popular, but they’re a mystery to many: What could possibly be so enjoyable about watching someone open a box full of things you can’t have?
According to The Wall Street Journal, unboxing videos first emerged in the early 2000s on websites like Unbox.it and unboxing.com. The videos primarily featured young adults opening packages containing the latest electronics, which is why the videos were nicknamed “geek porn.”
There’s some disagreement (paywall) about why unboxing videos are so alluring. As Molly Rubin has written for Quartz, “It could be about sharing in a fantasy, advertising-weary consumers seeking honest representation, aspirational thrill-seeking of a climactic moment, humanization of e-commerce, or simply pursuit of the raw pleasure that comes from opening a new item.” Psychologists say that the videos’ appeal has a lot to do with the pleasure consumers derive from the ritual of removing a new product from its box.
Chad Stoller, the executive director of emerging platforms at Organic, a digital marketing agency, told The Wall Street Journal’s Emily Steel (paywall), “It’s the culmination of lust. There are a lot of people who aspire, who want to have something they may not be able to afford, and they can’t buy it yet. They are looking for some way to satiate their appetite.” As Caroline Knorr, parenting editor for Common Sense Media, a nonprofit that rates and reviews media for parents, told Quartz, “unboxing videos, ultimately, are aspirational–they represent what people wish they had. And that’s a proven formula in all marketing.”
Kids are just as swayed by aspirational content as adults. Indeed, the scale of the toy unboxing video phenomenon has prompted what some term “moral panic.” A paper published in the journal Media International Australia describes one parent’s fears that his three-year-old daughter was becoming “addicted” to the videos:
Even though she is restricted to more educational content on her tablet, this 3-year-old has learned how to switch channels to watch her favorite unboxing channels. This friend further described how his daughter models the aesthetic practices featured in these videos, including self-narrating her life while conducting everyday activities like brushing her teeth. In frustration, he acknowledged he felt powerless to stop this behavior.
Such concerns have pitted parents and activists against platforms like YouTube and the advertisers who produce this content, even leading to legal complaints to the US Federal Trade Commission and calls for greater regulation (pdf).
But are toy unboxing videos actually bad for kids? The scholarship on their impact–especially on children–is very limited (pdf). That said, activists have raised concerns that the videos blur the line between online content and advertising; They argue that unboxing videos are not regulated like advertisements, and yet have a “persuasive intent” in trying to convince children to buy the product that’s being featured. Other critics have said the videos teach kids to become materialistic at a very young age, and that they contribute to children’s growing tech addiction. In an interview for The New Daily, psychologist Justin Coulson explained, “Consumerism can be addictive. Are we creating this feeling of anticipation and joy without actually having anything to hold? And then when it comes to birthdays and Christmas–have they had that feeling so many times that the novelty’s worn off?” Knorr believes that’s one of the major problems with the unboxing video industry: “Unboxing videos can convey the idea that it’s things that make us happy. Or that we need new products to make us fully content.”
That’s too bad—because as the comic Calvin & Hobbes so memorably pointed out, kids don’t need to unbox toys to have fun. Most have a far better time playing with the box itself.