Why Are We Obsessed With 'Unboxing' Videos?

Of the many videos recently uploaded to YouTube, the one above caught our eye. Titled "Num Noms Ice Cream Sundae Sampler Surprise Set with Disney Frozen Fever Birthday Anna Elsa NumNoms," the video features a woman's hands, their elaborately lacquered nails featuring Minnie Mouse, opening a box of toys as her high-pitched voice lyrically guides her viewers—most of whom can barely speak themselves—through the components of the set.

"Time to make an awesome ice cream," she coos, as she piles the plastic bits, called NumNoms, into a plastic cone, waving each piece into a totem pole of sorts. "How tall can we go?" 

Welcome to the world of "unboxing," where products get unwrapped and torn from their packages and shown to an online audience. These videos take after the "haul videos" from earlier this decade, in which adults showcase the stuff they buy during a shopping spree, and the “geekporn” videos that cram the Internet immediately after a new version of a phone or other coveted personal tech comes out.

But unboxing videos are a little different: They portray adults unwrapping children's toys, often with a disembodied voice that sounds as if the narrator is playing with the child. Others choose music instead of voice overs. All focus on the big reveal, which can come many times in a single video, especially when it comes to objects like Kinder Eggs.

And before you dismiss this phenomenon as just another weird trend indicative of our digital obsessions, consider this: unboxing videos routinely take a few of the top 10 spots on most-viewed YouTube watchlists, among the music videos from international superstars and the latest viral prank. There’s clearly something alluring about this unwrapping-by-proxy for millions of people. What is it?

Unboxing video stars are notoriously difficult to reach and private. As the New York Times reported, the star of the above-cited video is Melissa Lima, a.k.a. DisneyCollector or FunToyzCollector, an allegedly 20-something Brazilian native who now lives in Westchester, New York, and may be worth millions thanks to ad revenue and endorsement deals from her videos. One of her most popular videos, “Angry Birds Toy Surprise Jake and the Never Land Pirates Disney Pixar Cars 2 Easter Egg SpongeBob” (unboxing videos rely on keyword searches and often feature dense titles that may not be poetic but are efficient in driving traffic), has garnered more than 106 million views.

But mental_floss spoke to unboxing star Melissa Hunter, a 48-year-old mother who, with her now 12-year-old daughter Gracie, launched the YouTube channel Mommy and Gracie in June 2012. The series features the slapstick, often klutzy duo unboxing toys—predominantly dolls—and reviewing them. The Hunters started the series on a whim and have become quite successful, garnering 587,000 subscribers and 295 millions views (and about 17 million per month). They’ve become a household name, particularly among moms and kids, who range in age from toddlers to tweens.

In November, the Hunters attended the Chicago Toy and Game Fair as special guests and unboxed toys for an hour during an event billed as the world's largest and possibly first livestreaming of unboxing.

Hunter suspects the reason why her unboxing videos are so popular is that they feature both her and her daughter sharing a spirit of curiosity and play. When she was a child, her father spent hours playing with her—a luxury of time many parents can't afford today.

But while Hunter understands how her videos may fill a gap, she’s not necessarily entirely comfortable with it. Her most ardent fans are toddlers who can barely speak. Hunter cites numerous children who’ve come up to her and called her “Mommy” while their parents look on quizzically. “It’s concerning to know that these kids are watching me and my daughter and their parents have no idea what they’re watching,” she tells mental_floss. She’s not alone in her concern; many parents say they are mystified by how bedazzled their children are by unboxing videos.

Perhaps they shouldn’t be so surprised. Hunter gave a talk in New York City in November at StreamCon, a new conference for digital content producers, about why toddler-aimed unboxing videos are solid business. She cited some astonishing statistics: 25 percent of children under the age of 2 in the U.S. have their own tablet, and 80 percent of parents give their device to their child aged 0–2. A look at Google Trends shows that unboxing as a search term has spiked, and not just in America: Countries in South Asia are leading the pack in terms of interest, with tech unboxings aimed at adults being the most popular. 

Psychologists don't think unboxing necessarily has a bad impact on kids—or adults. Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center, which studies how people interact with media across platforms, thinks unboxing videos feed into a primal curiosity and desire to know what's hidden inside something. The desire to be surprised might be part of our essential makeup.

"The human brain is wired to be curious," she says. "What's in stuff? What's behind stuff? We have a natural proclivity to know."

Rutledge says the unboxing phenomenon isn't new: she points to gumball machines spitting out toys, cereal boxes with surprise gadgets, and popsicles that reveal a joke or quote on the stick only once they’re eaten up. 

This element of surprise has a couple of uses for us, and it varies by age. Consider a toddler watching an unboxing video. They watch a box being taken apart or a plastic egg being opened. Fingers grab the product inside, toy with it, fit it in shapes or assemble parts together. Rutledge says that for the very youngest viewers, unboxing videos can act as both a cognitive experience and a reassurance mechanism.

"For younger kids, they'll watch unboxing videos repeatedly, the way they like to have stories told to them repeatedly," explains Rutledge, herself a mother of six. It's comforting for kids to see the same “surprise” come out from packaging, even though they know what’s inside.

As kids grow older, the element of surprise becomes more of an exploratory event, Rutledge says. Tween, teen, and adult tech geeks who are transfixed by unboxing videos are often looking to buy the product themselves.

"They're sort of how-to videos,” Rutledge says. “You're imagining yourself go through the process [of opening the box]. In contrast to advertisements, these are real."

It's easy to dismiss unboxing videos as more proof of our digital lives being dictated by the Internet, but Rutledge argues that these videos—as well as other online games that have risen in popularity among children—shouldn't be cast aside as silly or brain numbing.

"We have a negative understanding of vicarious in our society—that you're not doing your own living,” she says. Unboxing, she says, “is a different thing. It's more of an exploratory learning process."

“For kids, handing them a toy ice cream parlor [for example]—it's already done the work for you. There's no imagination, no building, thinking, creativity, or problem solving,” she continues. “With these videos and other games, there's learning: How are they putting it together? How are they using the Play-Doh? How are they making different creations?"

Screenshots from FunToyzCollector, YouTube

Some Fish Eggs Can Hatch After Being Pooped Out by Swans

iStock/olaser
iStock/olaser

A question that’s often baffled scientists is how certain species of fish can sometimes appear—and even proliferate—in isolated bodies of water not previously known to harbor them. A new study has demonstrated that the most unlikely explanation might actually be correct: It’s possible they fell from the sky.

Specifically, from the rear end of a swan.

A study in the journal Ecology by researchers at the Unisinos University in Brazil found that killifish eggs can, in rare cases, survive being swallowed by swans, enduring a journey through their digestive tracts before being excreted out. This kind of fecal public transportation system explains how killifish can pop up in ponds, flood waters, and other water bodies that would seem an unlikely place for species to suddenly appear.

After discovering that some plants could survive being ingested and then flourish in swan poop, researchers took notice of a killifish egg present in a frozen fecal sample. They set about mixing two species of killifish eggs into the food supply of coscoroba swans living in a zoo. After waiting a day, they collected the poop and dug in looking for the eggs.

Of the 650 eggs they estimated to have been ingested by the swans, about five were left intact. Of those, three continued to develop. Two died of a fungal infection, but one survived, enduring 30 hours in the gut and hatching 49 days after being excreted.

Because killifish eggs have a thick outer membrane, or chorion, they stand a chance of coming through the digestive tract of an animal intact. Not all of what a swan ingests will be absorbed; their stomachs are built to extract nutrients quickly and get rid of the whatever's left so the birds can eat again. In rare cases, that can mean an egg that can go on to prosper.

Not all fish eggs are so durable, and not all fish are quite like the killifish. Dubbed the "most extreme" fish on Earth by the BBC, killifish have adapted to popping up in strange environments where water may eventually dry up. They typically live for a year and deposit eggs that can survive in soil, delaying their development until conditions—say, not being inside a swan—are optimal. One species, the mangrove killifish, can even breathe through its skin. When water recedes, they can survive on land for over two months, waddling on their bellies or using their tails to "jump" and eat insects. A fish that can survive on dry land probably doesn't sweat having to live in poop.

The researchers plan to study carp eggs next to see if they, too, can go through a lot of crap to get to where they’re going.

[h/t The New York Times]

8 Facts About the Animals of Chernobyl

iStock/Tijuana2014
iStock/Tijuana2014

Three decades after the Chernobyl disaster—the world’s worst nuclear accident—signs of life are returning to the exclusion zone. Wild animals in Chernobyl are flourishing within the contaminated region; puppies roaming the area are capturing the hearts of thousands. Tourists who have watched the critically acclaimed HBO series Chernobyl are taking selfies with the ruins. Once thought to be forever uninhabitable, the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone has become a haven for flora and fauna that prove that life, as they say in Jurassic Park, finds a way.

1. The animals of Chernobyl survived against all odds.

The effects of the radioactive explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant on April 26, 1986 devastated the environment. Around the plant and in the nearby city of Pripyat in Ukraine, the Chernobyl disaster’s radiation caused the leaves of thousands of trees to turn a rust color, giving a new name to the surrounding woods—the Red Forest. Workers eventually bulldozed and buried the radioactive trees. Squads of Soviet conscripts also were ordered to shoot any stray animals within the 1000-square-mile Chernobyl Exclusion Zone. Though experts today believe parts of the zone will remain unsafe for humans for another 20,000 years, numerous animal and plant species not only survived, but thrived.

2. Bears and wolves outnumber humans around the Chernobyl disaster site.

While humans are strictly prohibited from living in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone, many other species have settled there. Brown bears, wolves, lynx, bison, deer, moose, beavers, foxes, badgers, wild boar, raccoon dogs, and more than 200 species of birds have formed their own ecosystem within the Chernobyl disaster area. Along with the larger animals, a variety of amphibians, fish, worms, and bacteria makes the unpopulated environment their home.

3. Most Chernobyl animals don’t look any different from their non-Chernobyl counterparts.

Stray puppies play in an abandoned, partially-completed cooling tower inside the exclusion zone at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant
Sean Gallup, Getty Images

Tour guides tell visitors not to pet Chernobyl animals due to potential radioactive particles in their fur, but some biologists have been surprised that the incidence of physical mutations appears lower than the blast of radiation would have suggested. There have been some oddities recorded within the area—such as partial albinism among barn swallows—but researchers think that the serious mutations mostly happened directly after the explosion. Today’s wild animals are sporting their normal number of limbs and aren’t glowing.

4. Radiation may have killed off Chernobyl’s insects.

In contrast to the large carnivores and other big fauna, bugs and spiders have seen a big drop in their numbers. A 2009 study in Biology Letters indicated that the more radiation there was in certain locations around the Chernobyl disaster area, the lower the population of invertebrates. A similar phenomenon occurred after the 2011 nuclear accident at the Fukushima nuclear power plant. Bird, cicada, and butterfly populations decreased, while other animal populations were not affected.

5. Despite looking normal, Chernobyl's animals and plants are mutants.

There may be no three-headed cows roaming around, but scientists have noted significant genetic changes in organisms affected by the disaster. According to a 2001 study in Biological Conservation, Chernobyl-caused genetic mutations in plants and animals increased by a factor of 20. Among breeding birds in the region, rare species suffered disproportional effects from the explosion’s radiation compared to common species. Further research is needed to understand how the increased mutations affect species’ reproductive rates, population size, genetic diversity, and other survival factors.

6. The absence of humans is returning Chernobyl to wilderness.

As WIRED points out, the Chernobyl disaster presents an unintended experiment in what Earth would be like without humans. Hunting is strictly illegal and living within the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone is not recommended. The fewer humans there are, the more nature can re-establish itself unencumbered by human activity. According to The Guardian, an official nature reserve recently created on the Belorussian side of the zone claims to be “Europe’s largest experiment in rewilding,” where animals are losing their fear of humans. In fact, a few species are actually living better within the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone than outside of it. Wolves were found to be seven times as abundant on the premises than in other, non-radioactive areas. Moose, roe deer, red deer, and wild boar were found to have similar numbers within the CEZ as compared to those in three uncontaminated nature reserves in Belarus.

7. An endangered wild horse is making a comeback thanks to Chernobyl.

A Przewalski's horse lays in a meadow
PATRICK PLEUL, AFP/Getty Images

British ecologists Mike Wood and Nick Beresford, who specialize in studying the effects of radiation on Chernobyl’s wildlife, observed that the Przewalski’s horse—an endangered wild species that originated in Mongolia—is thriving within the CEZ. In the late 1990s, about 30 Przewalski’s horses were released in the Ukrainian side of the CEZ. Based on camera trap images, Wood estimated that some of the original horses (identified by their brand markings) are still alive. Photos of juvenile horses and foals also indicated that the population is expanding.

8. You can adopt a Chernobyl puppy.

Hundreds of pooches—the descendants of dogs abandoned by their owners during the site’s evacuation on April 27, 1986—have made the desolate area their home. Until 2018, it was illegal to bring any animal out of the zone due to the risk of radiation contamination. But now, puppies cleared of radiation are getting a chance to find their forever homes. Spearheaded by the Clean Futures Fund and SPCA International, the management and adoption program ensures that the stray dogs are spayed, neutered, and vaccinated so they will be healthy and ready for adoption.

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