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What are unboxing videos – and why does my child like them?

Toys spread out on a table

“Open more Kinder joy!” shouts a young boy as he pulls apart a Kinder Surprise egg, finds a toy car and pushes it round the table making engine sounds. There are more eggs and over the next 10 minutes he opens each of them in turn. The toys are played with, the chocolate’s eaten. This is not a description of some everyday household scene; it’s a YouTube video that’s typical of a phenomenon known as “unboxing”. This particular video has been viewed 5.5 million times.

The first unboxing videos involved technology products: it’s thought that the first unboxing video on YouTube was for a cellphone in 2006. Since then, unboxing has rapidly become one of YouTube’s most-watched genres.

Unbox Therapy, which focuses on a wide range of products for adults, has more than 3bn views, and earns up to $2 million per year. While this is impressive, it’s dwarfed by the success of Ryan’s World, which sprung from the unboxing channel Ryan ToysReview. Eight-year-old Ryan was YouTube’s top earner in 2018, with an income of $22 million, and his videos have been viewed more than 35 bn times (YouTube data source: socialblade). To a casual viewer, unboxing can be baffling. Why would 5.5 million people watch a video of a child opening some chocolate eggs?

The most obvious explanation for unboxing is that it’s a product of our consumer age: unboxing videos are a form of viral advertising that taps into our consumerist tendencies, urging us to buy more stuff. In the light of a growing awareness of waste, and overuse of the planet’s resources, this seems to be of dubious value. There may however be a flipside: some viewers may use these unboxing videos as reviews to decide whether or not to buy a product. Some may decide not to buy products they don’t need after all. Many unboxing videos do clearly pitch themselves as reviews.

But this consumerist account cannot fully explain the phenomenon. For one, it doesn’t answer the question of why a video showing Kinder eggs being opened – a product anyone could buy easily and cheaply – has been viewed millions of times.

There has been little research done on unboxing, but what there has suggests children may enjoy these videos as a form of “window shopping”, without intending or wanting the product themselves. The amateur appearance of the videos could give viewers a sense of identification and a desire to share the presenter’s feelings of joy and discovery.

Another odd aspect of unboxing is that it’s not only the toy that is of interest, but also the act of unboxing itself. The viewer is vicariously experiencing the sensations, sounds, and sights they associate with a new purchase. Our brains are excellent at learning associations between stimuli and rewards (something that has been known since psychology’s early days with the famous Pavlov’s dog experiments). This focus on the opening of a product means that unboxing videos could be popular because they trigger a brain response linked to the receipt of a reward, even though they don’t provide a tangible reward themselves. In a sense, they “hijack” brain mechanisms that tell us we have received something of value and give us some immediate gratification.

Finally, as a researcher in play and psychology, I’m interested in how toy unboxing videos affect how children play. Do they encourage children to play more, and in more diverse ways, which I would consider a positive outcome? Or do they act as a substitute for play?

The second possibility is concerning because, although the videos may deliver some of the pleasure of play, they don’t involve any of the elements of play that are most important for learning and development: exploration; experimentation; problem-solving; social interaction; and fine-motor movement.

So what advice would I give to someone whose child watches unboxing videos? First, talk to them about it. Each child is different, and the reasons they watch unboxing videos will vary, which means you need to understand what your child finds appealing in them. We know that dialogue between parents and children is important, especially if the child takes part rather than simply listens. Try to understand their interest, and engage with it.

If they seem to be using the videos as a substitute for play, you could point out things in the videos they could do themselves, using the videos as inspiration. You could take a toy they own and emulate some ideas from the videos.

We will only really understand the appeal and effects of unboxing with more research. It may seem odd that we need to study videos of children opening chocolate eggs, but the reach of these videos makes them a phenomenon worth investigating. After all, 5.5 million people can’t be wrong, can they?

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