Mommy Approved

Unpacking unboxing: A YouTube phenomenon

My kids are obsessed with YouTube Kids. That’s nothing new. Personally, I’m happy to buy a few extra minutes to eat food while it’s hot, do some laundry or answer a quick email. I’m vigilant about what they watch, and often watch videos with them (just because the app has “Kids” after it doesn’t mean it’s entirely kid-friendly, especially when your boys are collectively younger than a grade-schooler.)

Their latest obsession isn’t episodes of Paw Patrol or mini movies featuring the Minions. It’s videos of adults unpacking toys and playing with them. After conducting some research, I discovered that this phenomenon – referred to as “unboxing” – isn’t new. And if my kids are totally into it, then chances are yours are too.

Borrowed from the adult version of unpacking new tech items such as iPhones or computers, “unboxing” videos feature adult voices, usually female and unnaturally enthusiastic, guiding viewers through components of unpackaged toys. Sometimes there’s just music, but my kids favour a fully guided tour. Often, the toys are arranged with time-lapse (stop motion) into a fully developed, if poorly scripted, plotline.

Theories abound as to why unboxing has become so wildly popular (The Google search term “unboxing” has increased 871% since 2010*) I’m not a psychologist and won’t overwhelm you with theories of the mind philosophy or cognitive development. I’m here to tell you that unboxing is weird, but it won’t mess up your kid.

It will all be ok, even if you don’t see any obvious value in it.

There’s a pejorative view of technology and its impact on childhood development, but I’m betting it doesn’t come from the 80% of parents who give their device to their children between the ages of 0-2**. The scape and scope of play is changing, but that doesn’t mean it’s all passive entertainment turning tiny, developing minds into mush. For me, there’s little difference between watching these videos with my kids (while they interpret and explain what’s happening) and reading them their favourite book 500 times.

Unboxing is exploratory and feeds into their innate desire to know what stuff is, how it works and what’s hidden inside. They’re no less inclined to explore their world just because there’s someone on YouTube doing it for them. For proof I offer my son Nate who, just yesterday, was very busy using my sunglasses to crack open a walnut to see what was inside.

At the end of the day, is there really any difference between watching a video of someone creating a play-based narrative and watching commercials specifically inserted between Saturday morning cartoons to hawk directed play? When I was a kid, we had Strawberry Shortcake, Barbie, Care Bears, and a whole host of other playtime friends. The implicit promise was the more characters and/or accessories you purchased, the more vivid your playtime experience would be.

My kids know the difference between “playing” and “watching”, and there’s no indication from either of them they’re going to give up playing with their own toys any time soon. Watching a video of a woman playing with a Peppa Pig “Mashem” isn’t going to hinder their ability to learn, create and play.


** StreamCon, NYC, November 2015.