Once upon a time there was a little boy called Ryan, who went to the local toy store with his parents to buy a toy. He chose a Lego Duplo train and went home to play with it. His parents, like many of us do, made a video of this run-of-the mill excursion with their adorable, precocious three-year-old, so that his grandparents could share their joy at the cuteness and cleverness of little Ryan. The video, like many millions of other family videos, was then uploaded to YouTube.
ut unlike the many millions of other family videos, Ryan’s 15-minute video got lots of hits and after a year or so the channel earned enough for mum Loann to become a full-time ‘YouTube’ mom and later, Ryan’s dad Shion gave up his job as a structural engineer to join the family firm. Since then, Ryan’s Toys Review has evolved into a content creation and branding phenomenon with 10 YouTube channels, the most popular of which is Ryan’s World, that earns the Texas-based Ryan (10) and the rest of the Kaji family $27m annually. Commercial partners include Amazon, Walmart and Nickelodeon.
A new phenomenon was born: the world of the ‘kidfluencer’, one that would come to define the changing way our children watch screens over the last decade. Ryan was the highest earning YouTuber from 2018 to 2020 — he moved to 7th place last year, among those beating him was seven-year-old Nastya from Russia, now based in Florida, who came in 6th with $28m. Like Ryan, Nastya, full name Anastasia Radzinskaya, began life as a toy unboxer whose popularity led her parents to quit the day jobs and make showcasing their charismatic offspring the family business.
Ryan and Nastya, like other YouTube influencers, earn their millions by capturing the attention of young kids and either selling it to advertisers via ads and product placement, or by developing merchandise to sell directly — Ryan’s World merchandise is estimated to bring in $250m annually. And although advertising to kids is nothing new — analog programming for children also features ads — the digital space is largely unregulated, although attempts have been made in recent times by YouTube and others to address the issue.
But, as it stands, how is it affecting our kids — and we can safely assume it is our kids as, according to Statista’s latest figures, YouTube had 3.4 million Irish users in 2021. They project this will rise to 3.52 users in 2022.
Our most recent National Advisory Council for Online Safety report (2021) surveying children aged 9 to 17 found that YouTube was the most used social media forum for all age groups. According to UK communications regulator Ofcom, children’s TV consumption was been overtaken by YouTube and Netflix for the first time in 2020, with four to 15-year-olds watching 11 hours of online videos a week, versus seven of TV. We can assume that the same shift is occurring here.
Psychologist Dr Malie Coyne has two daughters who are regular YouTube consumers. Now aged eight and 10, they have graduated from the unboxing videos to watching their favourite YouTubers playing Roblox. And while she would prefer them to be playing Roblox as opposed to watching someone else playing it, she does not miss the unboxing videos.
“We were watching somebody opening Harry Potter wands a few months ago and this girl had about 20 of them and she was just opening one after the other after the other. Each wand in Smyths costs like 20-something euro. It does scare me a little bit — we weren’t exposed to that when we were kids. And this attitude of we will just throw it to the side if we don’t like it. It does scare me a little bit.”
Dr Coyne compares the appeal of the videos to that of the old-fashioned ‘Lucky Bags’ that we would have bought as kids — the anticipation of opening a surprise and the dopamine hit that we get from the reveal — but on steroids. She refers to anecdotal evidence from other parents that viewing unboxing videos has diminished children’s appreciation of toys. Parents have expressed dismay at watching their children open a birthday or Christmas present only to throw it aside and look for the next gift to unwrap.
Dublin mum Sinead Kelly can relate. She has a five-year-old boy who occasionally watches YouTube child influencers. Like many, his consumption increased during the past two years and she has since put strict time limits on his access:
“We all have Covid at the moment so I relaxed my rules and let him watch Ryan’s World yesterday. To be fair there was a stem theme and it was less commercial than I had remembered but his energy levels after it were through the roof. Between the colours and the pace, it is over-stimulating and my son was literally bouncing off the furniture watching it.
“He watched them a lot during lockdown when I was working and I limited them as I found he was asking for and expecting the toys they had. It sets an unrealistic precedent for children in regards to what is ‘normal’ as they cannot distinguish between real life and YouTube.”
Other parents I spoke to had similar concerns — one mentioning her son bemoaning the fact that Ryan got $20 from the tooth fairy as being particularly infuriating, another opined that the quality of the merchandise they bought was not what she expected given the price.
That the promotion of consumerism is cloaked in what looks like real life is also a concern for Dr Coyne. When her children were watching the videos, she made sure to point out that what looked like home videos of normal kids living their lives was anything but. She also recommends that, if possible, children watch the YouTube videos on the TV or at least without headphones so that you are aware of what they are watching, and able to contextualise it.
“It looks like it is real life. You are brought into the person’s house. As a parent you need to tell your kids from a very young age that what they are watching is not necessarily their daily real life. They have been sent all this stuff for free and there is probably a lot of pressure going on in that house and it is not all as it seems.”
Dr Tijana Milosevic from the Anti Bullying Centre at DCU studies children’s digital media use and its effects on their health and wellbeing. She points out that digital media for children is not all bad and that research shows that it can be a very positive force in their lives, particularly with regards to friendships. It was a lifeline for many children during lockdown for example, as it enabled them to stay connected with their friends.
She also points out that digital literacy is being taught in schools, which is helping children become more critical viewers. However, she would share the concerns of Dr Malie Coyne and the parents outlined above and points to a study that analysed the types of food that were most prevalent in YouTube videos geared at children. Most of the food was fast food and unhealthy food products and it was shown to influence children’s habits in an unhealthy way. But the study also found that if you feature healthy foods, it can influence children’s habits in a healthy, positive way.
YouTube, she says, appear to be taking steps to deal with this and other issues pertaining to children’s content, and she points to The Digital Services Act and our Online Safety and Media Regulation Bill as progress, but while platforms like YouTube are defined as online intermediaries and not publishers, they are not liable for any of their content.
For Dr Milosevic, the positioning of children like Ryan and Nastya as workers and the effect that this could have on their wellbeing is a concern.
“It can become a very lucrative thing for the family. And if you have a good social media platform, regular media amplifies their worth and their presence and then they become embedded in an ecosystem that involves not just social media but traditional media.
“Ryan for example has a channel, he has a Roblox presence — he has a whole section of Roblox devoted to him. So, more and more actors in the media ecology have a vested interest in this online presence of a child.”
Aside from the insidious consumerism, the wellbeing of the children performing in and watching the videos, there are broader cultural concerns also, according to Dr Milosevic.
“When someone makes it on YouTube, there is an implied sense of self-worth in there, an implied sense that that is a good thing. And if that is the example for young people, then we have a whole generation of children and young people who are seeing this as their ideal. And while we have had that before with TV stars, it is more pervasive now because it is on the phone, it is how you socialise, it is always with you.
“The whole essence of the social relationship between you and an influencer is that you think that person is real, so that when you give them a compliment or you tell them something, there is a perceived intimacy. And that intimacy is nurtured and then it is monetised.
“It is a broader cultural issue, that we value things that are heavily monetised. And we are not talking about it enough.”