I first became aware of a very niche hobby a few years ago, when my cousin casually mentioned that her daughter loved watching videos of people opening up brand new toys. I didn’t think much of it, to be honest, although I couldn’t imagine anything more boring (and, frankly, frustrating).
Unboxing videos aren’t so niche anymore, and kids aren’t the only audience members. But some wonder if there is a bigger testament to modern-age consumerism than the fact that millions of people regularly flock to YouTube in order to vicariously experience the removal of a new product from its packaging. YouTube reports that users spent 60 million hours watching unboxing videos in 2015 alone. Are unboxing videos an odd diversion or an unhealthy obsession? What drives this behavior, and what are the psychological effects? Should you let your child watch unboxing videos?
Turns out the psychology behind this trend isn’t just about living vicariously — watching an unboxing video is a lot like playing a game. Media psychologist Dr. Pamela Rutledge explains that viewers gain neurological rewards when they compare what they anticipate to be in the box with the item when it is revealed. It becomes a guessing game — almost a gamble. While that seems harmless enough, marketers know this and are taking full advantage. Unboxing channels on YouTube get millions of hits per month, and there are reports of their hosts earning millions of dollars a year for featuring products on their channels.
Though Rutledge sees these videos as mostly harmless, as someone who works in marketing her explanation of their cognitive benefits must be looked at critically. Parents are right to be concerned about passive media consumption in general, and when it comes to unboxing videos parents should definitely worry about materialism and consumerism.
So should you let your child watch unboxing videos? Whether you choose to or not, there are really only two ways to responsibly address the trend and both involve your child’s understanding of, and participation in, the limit-setting process.
Yes, but limit their consumption and maintain an open dialogue. Talk to your child about what they are watching and why they find it so intriguing. Listen to their reasons for watching the videos and then explain the psychology of unboxing to them in simple terms. Introduce a tool like Screen Time to limit and monitor the time your child spends on YouTube. Address any behaviors you observe that indicate that they are developing an unhealthy obsession with the videos themselves or are growing more materialistic due to the content of the videos.
No. Change the channel. If unboxing videos become a problem and your child accesses YouTube on a desktop, a browser add-on like LeechBlock for Mozilla Firefox or StayFocused for Chrome can help you limit or even block access to the site. If your child is young enough, YouTube Kids (available on the web as well as an app for handheld devices) might be a better option for them. If you’re looking to make their time with passive entertainment a bit more constructive, you should give Toca TV a try. You’ll still want to have regular conversations about what they are watching.
For more about passive versus active media consumption, see “Video Games vs Imagination: The Great Debate.” Have a question about parenting in the digital age? Ask Dr. Kulman, leave a comment below, or come talk to us on Facebook!
Featured image: Flickr user Category5 TV