Inside the Booming Business of Adults Who Play With Toys on YouTube

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Earlier this year, my 5-year-old cousin sat down next to me with her mom’s iPhone to watch some of her favorite videos on YouTube. The first thing she pulled up wasn’t a clip from her favorite TV show or a sing-a-long video, though; it was an unboxing video, one that showed adult hands playing with a set of miniature Japanese cooking toys, demonstrating how they could be played with in complete silence. Kelsey doesn’t know what ramen noodles are (she said, “look, pasta!”) but she’s eager to watch strange adults online play with toys she doesn’t have access to.

Unboxing videos, especially of new technology, have been growing in popularity for the past few years—between 2013 and 2014, views of unboxing videos grew 57 percent, garnering a total of 1 billion views in 2014 alone, according to Google’s research team. And according to the video marketing consultants at TubularInsights, videos with the word “unboxing” in the title get an average of 10,000 views. YouTube channels specifically devoted to unboxing toys are particularly popular.

Take Ryan’s Toy Reviews, for example. The channel, which features videos of 4-year-old Ryan unboxing and playing with toys, launched in 2015 and now has more than 5.4 million followers. By late November 2016, it topped the YouTube charts in popularity, receiving more views than any other channel—182.6 million in just a week—for the 15th week in a row. Ryan is even more popular than Justin Bieber.

But Ryan, who is about the same age as his intended audience, is not the typical demographic represented in the stars of these videos. Instead, many of the people unwrapping and playing with toys on YouTube—voicing Barbies, Peppa Pig toys, Spongebob figures, and more—are adults.

These channels aren’t some obscure trend hidden in random corners of the Internet. One, Fun Toys Collector, has more than 8.5 million subscribers and 12.1 billion views. The videos almost always feature adult voices—typically female, high-pitched, insanely enthusiastic, and a little whispery—giving voice to toy characters, their hands occasionally popping out from behind the camera to manipulate the dolls and other toys. Usually at least some of the toys are unboxed on-camera before they’re played with.

A favorite channel among both my cousins and other pint-sized mental_floss friends is the saccharine CookieSwirlC, which has nearly 3.7 million subscribers. Since its inception in late 2013, it’s gathered more than 4.2 billion views in total. According to her site, “CookieSwirlC is a collector of many toys including Shopkins, Barbie and Build-a-Bear,” and she started her channel “to share her passion of toys and creating stories through play.” She doesn’t take money from toy companies in exchange for coverage, and says on her site that she only features toys she herself collects. This isn’t her only channel. The creator, who did not respond to multiple interview requests, started her toy-reviewing career with a channel focused on model horses, from Breyer figures to My Little Pony toys. She goes by the pseudonym Cookie on the CookieSwirlC site, but on her horse-focused blog, HoneyHeartsC, she refers to herself as Honey.

Like many toy accounts, HoneyHeartsC—which has significantly fewer followers than her general toy channel, about 205,700 subscribers—blends playing with dolls and horses with unboxing and reviewing the toys. In one typical video, two Barbies talk about how one of them dances with her horse—and cue the detailed description and unboxing of a “Barbie Dancing Fun Horse” toy. The narration sounds genuinely enthusiastic, like a kid opening presents on Christmas morning. The camera focuses lovingly on tiny details of the box. Sometimes the pictures depicting how the toy can be played with are narrated as if part of a playtime story, too. The narrator dissects the colors of the Barbies’ hair, the brushability of the horses’ tails, the accessories, and more, interspersing directions for using the toys (how to place the Barbies on the horses, how to get the horse toys to walk) and imaginative play plots, like one in which one Barbie is anxious to catch up to the other rider, for instance. You sometimes see the creator’s hands—pink sparkly nail polish and all—but for the most part, the camera is angled to make the toys look like they move on their own.

For Nathalie Clark, 30, and Mercy Casiano, 29, who jointly run the 1.3-million-subscriber channel Toys Unlimited, the choice to start playing with toys on the Internet was an easy business decision. The two met as nurses working in Houston, and started their channel a year and a half ago when Nathalie spotted a story on Facebook about one toy collector’s wildly popular YouTube channel. “I was like, ‘we can do this,’” Clark tells mental_floss. Now, thanks to YouTube’s monetization option, Casiano has quit her job to work on the channel full-time, and Nathalie works only a few days a month.

Though plenty of YouTubers in the toy world are avid collectors, Clark and Casiano, who go by the nicknames Nat and Essie in their videos, are all business. Clark has a 5-month-old who’s too young to appreciate their videos, and Casiano doesn’t have kids. Casiano says that while people assume they must love toys in real life, “That’s not the case in my situation. It was really just an opportunity.” It’s not hard to see how playing with toys on camera might be a preferable job to putting in long, stressful hours at a hospital. While they like being their own bosses, Clark and Casiano also feel like it’s a philanthropic endeavor: The pair donates the toys they buy or receive for the videos to pediatric hospitals in both Houston and in the Philippines, where Mercy went to nursing school.

Unfortunately, the realities of making YouTube your full-time job aren’t as glamorous as they might sound. “If you want to become a YouTuber, it’s extremely competitive,” Casiano explains. “You have to put out at least one video every day. I feel like it’s more of a quantity over putting the best quality you can.” Instead of nursing, the duo works 10-hour days, six days a week, to meet their goal of posting at least one video of each of them unboxing and playing with toys per day. They typically post around 14 to 16 videos total each week.

The extreme competition for clicks might be why I found YouTubers so hard to track down. Of the multiple emails I sent out to 15 different YouTube creators, many of whom have millions of followers, I received only two responses (aside from one that came in an unusable form of broken English). Apparently, many toy YouTubers are either loath to talk about their job or exceedingly busy, and based on the people I was able to track down, the latter feels like a legitimate excuse. It’s hard to find time for an interview when you can’t even take a full weekend off.

But it’s still a pretty good business, if your channel is popular enough. With a little help from Google Translate and the basic Spanish I learned in high school, I emailed with Javier Pombo, a 32-year-old in A Caruña, Spain who runs a channel called Toys & Games. It initially started out as an unboxing channel for Kinder Surprise eggs, then morphed into a toy channel when he and his brother discovered exactly how popular Peppa Pig channels were getting. Though Toys & Games is relatively small with only 143,000 followers, Pombo's six-channel operation, Nano Studios, now has three other employees—all women between the ages of 20 and 25—who come up with the ideas for the episodes and play with the toys on camera. Right now, they create around 15 videos every week, translating their Spanish videos into English (with a freelance English-language narrator) so they can appeal to a wider audience. Like Toys Unlimited’s creators, Nano Studios, which runs another toy channel called Funny Stories for Children, buys most of the toys on display, though some come from the Spanish toy company Bandai España and the New Jersey-based Calico Critters. The business is successful enough that Pombo plans to add another two channels to the roster in early 2017.

These videos aren’t promoting particularly under-the-radar toys, no doubt due to both the promotional toys companies send in and the need to compete for kids’ clicks. To find the trendiest toys to feature on their channel, Casiano and Clark watch the Disney Channel to note what's new and popular and survey all their friends who have kids about the latest "in" toys and shows. If a video doesn’t feature a Disney character, it’s a Barbie, or a My Little Pony figure, or a Peppa Pig toy. Unsurprisingly, many channels capitalize on the intense popularity of the 2013 movie Frozen, to the point where seeing a clip that doesn’t involve one of the Frozen princesses is a rarity.

For instance, Come Play With Me, a channel with more than 992,000 followers that seems to involve actual children playing—or at least hires people with extremely child-like voices—almost exclusively traffics in playing with Anna and Elsa figures, even in videos that include characters from other movies, like Ursula from 1989's The Little Mermaid.

Many of these channels call their videos parodies—perhaps to get around the fact that they’re making money by using trademarked characters—but there’s nothing especially humorous or satirical about them. Most don’t even seem to attempt to be funny. The videos come off as sincere attempts to create the kind of plots a kid would come up with after a visit to the toy box, and some rival the lengths of the shows they’re based on.

Though toy videos on YouTube might look basically like the same thing kids do when they’re playing on their own, not all playtime is the same. Playtime for kids is more than just a fun activity; it helps them develop and practice essential skills they’ll use later in life. Some researchers hypothesize that when kids imagine and play in worlds of their own, with toys or without, it influences the development of creativity, intelligence, and what’s called theory of the mind (understanding that others have desires and perspectives that are separate from yours).

The scientific jury is still out as to whether imaginative play actually causes kids to become more creative or intelligent, but it’s certainly correlated. It’s possible that pretend play just happens to coincide with those developments, and it may be that either kids who are creative and understand other perspectives enjoy playing more, and therefore do it more, or that there’s some third factor that influences both play and creativity at the same time. However, there are a few ways that playing might help kids develop important life skills.

“Imaginary play could encourage social development because children are simultaneously behaving as themselves and as someone else,” as Tracy Gleason—a professor of psychology at Wellesley College in Massachusetts who focuses on the relationships between children and their imaginary friends—writes in an article on The Conversation. “This gives them a chance to explore the world from different perspectives, and is a feat that requires thinking about two ways of being at once, something that children may have difficulty doing in other circumstances."

In other words, it’s good practice for a lot of real-world social situations. “It’s this level of abstraction,” Gleason told me over the phone. “You’re pretending that Barbie is talking and doing things, and you have to think about Barbie’s thoughts and feelings and behaviors. All of that is the kind of thing we do when we empathize with other people.”

The differences between playing and watching aren’t hard to tell when you talk to kids like my cousins. Kelsey, the 5-year-old whose favorite YouTube channel is CookieSwirlC, says she likes toy videos more than playing on her own because “they come up with better stories,” and she likes watching these amateur YouTube videos more than professionally created cartoons. If the YouTube video isn’t in English, she just turns the sound off and watches in silence. Sometimes she and her 8-year-old sister even watch videos featuring toys they have. When they watch YouTube with their little brother, who is about to turn 3, they’ll often watch superhero videos that contain some of the same toys he already owns.

It’s not exactly an imaginative process watching someone else at play, especially when a lot of the content isn’t terribly high quality. Like with a movie, you don’t have to imagine anything, because the story is all laid out for you. But few kids are going to give up playing on their own for YouTube. Riley, Kelsey’s 8-year-old sister, likes to play with her actual toys as much as watch videos of other people playing, even though she likes the different voices YouTubers come up with better than her own. Perhaps because she’s a bit older than her sister, when the videos don’t have an audio track or if the narration is in a different language, she proceeds to make up her own narration, an imaginative endeavor in itself.

Casiano argues that by watching her play on YouTube, kids can be inspired to play themselves. “It helps kids take the toys they have and start creating a story and having their [own] imagination.” She thinks part of the appeal to parents might be that, since as much as 80 percent of their traffic comes from mobile, people are handing their iPads to kids at restaurants or whenever they need a minute of quiet. Then the kids can pretend they’re playing with an infinite number of toys, rather than messing around with the one toy they brought all through dinner.

Now, kids have been coming up with their own imaginative play stories for millennia, so it's pretty strange to think that youngsters need an extra push to play with their toys or come up with creative scenarios in which they're pirates or space aliens or Dr. Barbie. You could argue that in an era when kids are often quieted with iPads and smartphones, anyway, toy videos might spark a little more desire to go off into real, solo imaginative play than say, another Peppa Pig episode. But that's probably not the case, according to experts.

"If you want play to be important, they should be playing," says Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a psychology professor at Temple University and a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution who studies play and childhood development.

It might not even be the toys in these videos that are attracting kids, for one thing. There's a chance that it's the bright screen itself. “The high resolution and the movement quality [of screens are] something that we know young kids are attracted to,” Hirsh-Pasek says. “I don’t think it has to be a toy. I think frankly it could be anything. I bet they’d be glued to a weather map.” She likens YouTube videos without an educational component to junk food: "We would never substitute our kids meals with cake and candy realistically everything in the right proportions is fine sometimes."

But while watching other people act out relatively boring Barbie plots seems like a pretty weird pastime for the next generation of kids, it’s probably not frying their brains completely. Gleason says that watching toy videos probably isn’t any different from a developmental perspective than any other media. “You’re watching a story unfold,” just like in a cartoon or television show. But from a developmental perspective, it’s actually better for a kid to watch with an adult. “One of the things that’s been demonstrated in the literature is that kids do a lot more processing if someone is watching with them,” Gleason says. “Otherwise it’s very passive.”

It won’t necessarily ruin your child's development to let them entertain themselves with this kind of YouTube Kids content, even if it’s kind of brain candy. It’s not that different from sitting them down in front of the TV. As Gleason puts it, “It’s not necessarily a bad thing, but what else could they be doing that might be more fun and more beneficial to them?” Playing with their own Elsa and Anna toys, probably.

15 Forgotten Summertime Activities We Need To Bring Back

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iStock/wundervisuals

Summer is here and it’s time to enjoy the sunshine. It’s also the perfect time to take a break from technology. Ditch your TV, shut down social media, and go outside. To do what, you might ask? Here are 15 summer activities from yesteryear that we should totally revive in popular culture.

1. Skipping rocks

Here’s a recipe for a classic summer: put down the video game, go outside, and throw rocks at water. Once you’ve mastered the flick of the wrist required to get the right amount of spin on your stone, it’s hard to stop counting how many skips you get on each throw.

2. Playing loggits

This game played in Tudor England was sort of like a cheap version of horseshoes. Players stuck a stick in the ground and took turns throwing other sticks at it. Whoever got their stick closest to the target won the game. Consider this activity more proof that all you need to have fun is some yard debris and a sunny day. 

3. Rolling a hoop

Two young girls rolling hoops in a London park in the 1930s
Fox Photos/Getty Images

You’ve probably seen this one in old-timey paintings, but chances are you’ve never rolled a hoop. The activity, also known as trundling a hoop, requires nothing more than a wooden hoop and a small wooden rod like a dowel. For centuries, kids amused themselves by running along and tapping the hoop with the rod to keep it rolling on a straight course. Easy to learn but tough to master, this one kept generations of kids out of mischief. 

4. Having an outdoor dance

“Schottische” is a traditional folk dance, much like a slower polka. It has long been a popular dance at Swedish midsummer festivals, which celebrate the season’s warmth and long daylight hours.

5. Growing giant vegetables

Giant pumpkins in a field in China
China Photos/Getty Images

Giant crop competitions appear in several state fairs. The tradition is particularly notable in Alaska, where longer sunlight hours during the summer make growing enormous produce easier. One Alaskan has grown seven world-record-sized vegetables, including a 76-pound cabbage! Most people no longer grow their own food, but taking pride in creating something uniquely huge is a vital American tradition.

6. Using bathing machines

Before string bikinis were considered appropriate beach attire, Victorian ladies frolicked in the surf within the confines of a bathing machine. These private carts gave women a sheltered space to change their clothes right on the water. Sure, most women are no longer afraid of being seen in a bathing suit, but wouldn’t it be nice to have your own private hut in the surf?

7. Heading to the summer farm

In agrarian Scandinavia, farmers traditionally lived on one farm during the winter and on another in the summer. When the weather warmed, farmers would take their livestock up into the mountains to feed in the meadows while they made repairs and grew hay on their home farm. Milkmaids would stay in the mountains for the summer months with the goats, sheep, and cows, milking them to make butter and cheese. A scenic rural getaway surrounded by dairy products? Yes, please. 

8. Sculpting things out of butter

Carving sculptures out of chilled butter is an American art that dates back to the 1870s, when a woman from Arkansas sculpted the main character of a 19th century Danish play in bas relief using brooms and sticks for Philadelphia’s 1876 Centennial Exhibition. The activity later became a staple of state fairs, and while it still goes on today, the practice could really use a revival in general culture. The best art is edible.

9. Playing a sidewalk game

Young girls play hopscotch on a sidewalk in the 1970s
Ian Tyas/Getty Images

In early 20th century New York City, kids played a popular street game called Skully. They would draw a large square on the asphalt or cement with several numbered boxes drawn inside the board, then flick bottle caps onto those targets in numerical order.

10. Having a garden party

Victorian England was known for its garden parties, when fancy socialites would gather on carefully manicured lawns to enjoy the nice weather. Guests enjoyed lawn tennis, live music, dancing, and races. While country estates are harder to come by these days, a little backyard lawn tennis followed by tea sandwiches is the perfect way to spend a summer’s day.

11. Taking a road trip

As America’s interstate highway system connected more places and more people bought cars, road trips became a popular vacation after World War II. However, higher gas prices and fewer vacation days eventually made the quintessential family getaway a little less popular. The freedom of the open road may be back within reach—at least for this summer.

12. Legally opening up a fire hydrant

Red fire hydrant gushing water
iStock/tfoxfoto

Flooding the street completely on a hot summer day is a no-no, but city slickers trapped in the heat can still create an urban oasis on a hot day. New York City, for one, offers fitted caps that funnel a gentle spray of water out of an opened hydrant—legally. Your block could be home to the tiniest of water parks.

13. Celebrating the summer solstice

Since ancient times, people have celebrated the longest day of the year with dancing, food, bonfires, and more. Try celebrating it the way they do in Sweden: Traditionally, Scandinavians clean out their houses and decorate them with flowers before the holiday.

14. Tuning into the radio

Vintage radio sitting on a mid-century dresser
iStock/Spiderstock

An integral part of the warm weather season is the so-called “song of summer,” that one tune that seemingly plays in the background wherever you go. Online radio isn’t the only way to find your summer jam. Listening to a favorite rock DJ is no longer how most people get their music, but there’s a bonus that comes with hauling out your old portable radio: You can take it to the beach.

15. Spreading a hoax about a sea monster

During the summer of 1937, newspapers in Nantucket began publishing accounts of a mysterious sea serpent that had come ashore, based on photographs of giant footprints on the beach. As it turned out, the New England seaside’s huge monster was an inflatable balloon, staged by a local puppeteer to draw attention to his shop.

Hotels.com Wants to Pay You $10,000 to Test Out Some of America’s Fanciest Hotel Pools

iStock/FTiare
iStock/FTiare

Getting paid to hang out by the pool all summer may sound like a job that's too good to be true. But popular hotel booking site Hotels.com is looking to hire one lucky "Poolhop" to do just that—and pay them $10,000 for their efforts.

According to the official job application, "The Poolhop’s responsibilities are simple; travel to some of the most incredible hotel pools across the country, sip on fruity drinks, snap some photos, sport a hotel robe, and report back to reward-loving Hotels.com fans."

Along with the $10,000 stipend, the Poolhop's perks will include paid airfare and accommodations at six hotels across the country, one year of Hotels.com Gold Rewards member status, and “eternal bragging rights.” The only serious requirements are that applicants be at least 21 years of age and a U.S. resident. They must also, of course, know how to swim.

Thrillist reports that the chosen hotels aren’t your average accommodations, either. The Poolhop will get to dive into luxury at Hawaii's Four Seasons Resort Hualalai, the Mondrian Los Angeles, the SLS Las Vegas, Colorado's Garden of the Gods Club and Resort, The William Vale Hotel in New York City, and Miami Beach's National Hotel.

“No one wants to be sitting at a desk all summer,” Katie Junod, general manager of the Hotels.com brand in North America, said. "There are so many incredible hotel pools to explore across the country, and we want to give travelers a first-hand look at the crème de la crème. And who better to live the hotel life than our very own Hotels.com Poolhop?”

The trip will take place during two weeks in August. All applications must be filled out and submitted by Tuesday, June 25th. And don't forget your sunscreen!

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