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Why Do Kids Love Unboxing Videos?

Unboxing videos are simple stories that trigger engagement.

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The fascination of seeing what toy's in the box
Source: Shutterstock

Unboxing videos are exactly what they sound like: Watching someone open a box while they tell you all about it on YouTube. They are very popular with kids, attracting millions of views and tens of millions of subscribers. Why?

Unboxing videos are stories. They aren’t elegant, fully developed narratives, but they have a clear story arc and goal. They are simple stories, often focused on or made by kids, for a specific audience. The most popular unboxing videos are aimed at kids, and kids love them. According to Pew Research, videos with kids in them average almost three times as many views as other types of videos from popular channels with a big proportion focused on toys or games. It’s not surprising when, as of 2018, 81% of parents with children 11 or younger let their kids watch YouTube. The unboxing videos are so popular that some young YouTubers earn millions of dollars annually by letting others watch them open boxes and play with toys.

Unboxing videos share the same mechanisms as traditional stories in their ability to trigger what we call ‘engagement.’ What’s really going on here? The appeal is due to an intersection of cognitive, affective, social and physiological elements; in other words, identification, imagination, feeling “in” the story, social connection, learning and a dash of dopamine.

It's an Emotional Connection

Who doesn't want to be like someone having fun? Identification is an important mechanism in narrative persuasion. Unboxing video channels that feature kids, such as Ryan’s World or EvanTubeHD, increase the chance of identification for young audiences because kids can relate to the excitement of opening a new toy. Ample evidence shows that we are drawn to characters that represent us in some way. When a child identifies with an Unboxer, they can step into the Unboxer’s shoes and ride the emotional experience as the unboxing unfolds.

It Triggers the Imagination

The unboxing videos are fun. Kids love opening presents, playing with toys, birthdays, and holidays. While opening a package is a celebratory ritual, it is primarily about the anticipation of a positive experience. Kids are eager for the emotional experience of participation in the surprise. It creates a sense of presence or ‘being there.’ Kids may want the toy but only as a means to an end: the ability to have fun.

It’s Like Taking a Trip

Narrative transportation is the sense of being in a story, traveling into the narrative and experiencing presence. Presence is the sense of being there and is amplified by close-up shots, high emotional arcs, and action. When kids are connected to a story onscreen, they experience the sensation of being in it. They go from being an observer to a participant. Being lost in a story increases enjoyment and diminishes the resistance to persuasion, making the viewer more willing to suspend disbelief and overlook inconsistencies.

It Feels Social

Kids who watch channels regularly feel like they’re with friends. Frequency and positive emotions can create a sense of relational attachment with a media personality. Even though it’s one-sided, a feeling of actually knowing that person develops. The authenticity of YouTube is created by unscripted adventures enhanced by the standard YouTube approach of breaking the fourth wall by speaking directly to the camera.

The experience of a parasocial connection isn't restricted to kids. Our instinctive responses don’t distinguish between virtual and real social signals. The affection and sense of knowing that audiences have for daily talk show hosts like Oprah and Ellen DeGeneres are examples of this. Similarly, celebrities who engage with fans on Instagram, like Taylor Swift and Rihanna, use social media to enhance the illusion of an interpersonal connection. Little wonder that kids feel attached to the Ryans, Nastyas, and Evans when they can join them every day in what feels like a slice of life.

There's a Biological Reward

The human brain is wired to be curious and to seek answers. This is part of our survival mechanism. Technology, however, has evolved much faster than the human brain. Uncertainty increases our risk of survival, so we are unconsciously compelled by curiosity to find answers. This instinct was not designed for unboxing videos. It was designed for identifying threats, like saber-tooth tigers, on the Savannah. Finding answers triggers a neural reward, reinforcing our information-seeking behavior, increasing our control over an environment.

You Can Learn Something

Unboxing videos are like “how-to” lessons. Many unboxing videos teach skills, such as Play-Doh techniques or learning Minecraft mods. As Bandura argued in his theory of social cognition, learning happens when we observe behavior and see the outcome, filtered by our own beliefs, goals and environment. That's what you get in an unboxing video: action and results. But it’s not about the toy itself. Kids will watch these videos intently to be able to replicate skills and behaviors in their own play. My daughter learned a lot about working with Play-Doh from unboxing videos.

It’s a Story

It’s like I said at the start: It’s all about the story. Communication is always about the story.

Stories are how we make meaning and organize information. Getting the answer to what’s in a box is the same thing as saying achieving resolution in a story. In narrative terms, an unboxing video is a mini-three act play with an exposition (presenting the box ), rising action and conflict (what is it? can I get the box open? will I like it?) and resolution or denouement (showing what’s in the box.) The thrill is in the anticipation of opening the box.

Age doesn’t matter as long as the content is personally salient and there is a narrative. We can all get sucked into one of these stories in a number of ways. Maybe we like a certain celebrity, are interested in a product, want to learn how to do something or need information. Salience is driven by individual and personal goals. They are not universal, nor are they likely to be the same for the child and the parent.

A parent may focus on an unboxing video as product marketing because the adult brain understands endorsements and is not intrigued by watching a kid open a box. For the parent, larger issues are at stake, such as concern about internalization of consumerism or other life lessons. A kid’s perspective is entirely different, focusing on the unknown and the observed emotion and play experience.

How should parents make sense of the appeal these videos hold for their kids? In my next post, I will talk about where unboxing videos might be legitimate concerns and where it's time to exhale.

References

Smith, A., Toor, S., & Van Kessel, P. (2018). Many Turn to YouTube for Children’s Content, News, How-to Lessons. Pew Research Center. Retrieved February 25, 2020 from https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2018/11/07/many-turn-to-youtube-fo….

Van Kessel, P., Toor, S., & Smith, A. (2019). A Week in the Life of Popular YouTube Channels. Pew Research Center. Retrieved February 25, 2020 from https://www.pewresearch.org/internet/2019/07/25/a-week-in-the-life-of-p…?

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