Ryan Kaji may be the most controversial 8-year-old alive. Since the first video of Kaji testing out a new toy was uploaded to YouTube in 2015, his YouTube channel — first called Ryan’s Toy Review; now called Ryan’s World — has acquired more than 24 million YouTube subscribers and become the cornerstone of a shockingly lucrative kidfluencer empire. In 2019, Forbes named Kaji the highest earning YouTube streamer of any age for the second year in a row, estimating that his family raked in $22 million in 2018 and $24 million in 2019 from advertising, their branded toys clothes and home goods, a partnership with Nickelodeon, and other sponsorship deals.
Ryan’s World videos are a particular type of Internet hell. They include science instructions, personal family vlogs, footage from family trips, and woefully unfunny “skits” about the parents’ office antics. But the heart of the channel is the unboxing toy reviews, where Kaji opens and reacts to new toys. The videos where he opens giant eggs filled with unknown varieties of toys from brands like Transformers and Minions are among his most popular —his video of opening a Cars-themed egg has over a billion views and he so thoroughly conquered the surprise toy egg space that major retailers sell Ryan’s World-branded eggs today. But he doesn’t just open eggs. He test rides kid-sized ATVs, spins Spider-man webbing toys and visits kid-friendly vacation spots like Legoland.
Many kids find Kaji’s authentic-seeming wonderment and delight with new toys hypnotic and relatable and often mimic his behavior in the videos. His influence isn’t lost on toy companies searching for social media boosts for their products.
Herein lies the real trouble. Ryan’s World toy reviews mix organic and sponsored content. And the non-profit consumer watchdog group Truth in Advertising believes they don’t sufficiently distinguish between the two. In late 2019, TINA accused the Kajis of violating FTC law, saying their sponsored videos have deceived millions of young children, who’re unable to tell the difference between advertising and organic content.
The TINA complaint is the most high-profile criticism of Ryan’s World but it’s not alone. The channel’s emphasis on novelty-driven consumerism has left many parents ranging from uneasy to annoyed to seething with rage.
To offer a nuanced perspective about the problems with Ryan’s World, we asked legal, media and childhood development experts as well as two (very) frustrated parents to weigh in. Here’s what they said.
The Issues with Ryan’s World, According to an Advertising Watch Dog
We looked into Ryan’s Toys Review, which is now called Ryan’s World, as it was the most popular YouTube channel for kids at the time. It has 24 million subscribers and now has more than 36 billion views, which really speaks to the breadth of the issue. We realized there were videos that appeared to be organic content mixed with videos that were promotional. And it was really hard to tell the difference.
We went through every single video that the platform published between January 1st and I believe it was July 31st of last year. So that was more than 200 videos. We found that the overwhelming majority of those videos were targeted to preschoolers. That age bracket is important because there is scientific literature, there’s research studies that say that kids in that age don’t even understand what ads are. They can’t identify them and they don’t understand when they’re being marketed to. Which is a problem. So the recommendation to disclose that it’s an ad audibly or in any other way doesn’t work for this audience.
This company, these parents, are using their own child to market to other kids. And while adults are seeing the videos and ultimately making the purchases, the intended audience are these little kids. And there’s research that shows that despite best efforts, parents buy the toys their kids ask for. — Laura Smith, Legal Director at Truth in Advertising
Ryan’s World, According to Children’s Media Expert and Pediatrician
These unboxing videos, I kind of think of them as consumer porn. It’s this vicarious surprise and excitement of opening something.
Most toys today actually diminish or narrow the child’s input. The narratives are pre-ordained. We are narrowing the imagination and creativity of childhood by having the toys do more and more.
Kids watching these videos learn that what makes people happy is getting stuff. I call it consumer porn because the delight and joy is in the unveiling, the unwrapping, and the unboxing, saying “Oh, look what I have!” But it’s a very ephemeral, fleeting moment because you’re then onto the next thing and the next thing and the next. It’s about the surprise and discovery. And it’s a discovery not of something that stimulates their imagination or creativity, but channels it into this preordained story.
It’s a whole different thing to play with Barbie and her Corvette and to have a bucket and a shovel and sand on the feet. One comes with a whole narrative, a whole environment, a whole set of values and cultural perspective, that is pre-digested and fed to you. The other is the world, right?
They want to homogenize these experiences because it really is all about merchandising. It is about brand awareness, brand loyalty, et cetera. Because the point of getting one Barbie is to convince them to get five more.
Virtually every video on YouTube, including unboxing videos, is very carefully designed by psychologists to be a variable reward system. The same way that when you go and gamble in Vegas you get frustrated just enough. If it takes a while to unbox it, you’re frustrated by not knowing what’s there and then you get this dopamine surge of excitement when whatever it is comes out. And that’s gold to merchandisers.
They allow children not to have to defer gratification. They are instantly gratified or they’re gratified in a predictably short period of time. It’s like the old fashioned marshmallow test where they put one marshmallow in front of a kid and say don’t eat this and I’ll be back in 10 minutes and give you two marshmallows to see how well kids are able to keep from eating the marshmallow. What these do is shoot marshmallows at you at a rapid rate. You don’t have to wait. You don’t have to defer. You just consume and what you see ultimately is an attenuation of the surprise and the pleasure.
It’s just too easy. There’s no resistance. There’s no waiting, there’s nothing you have to put into it. — Michael Rich, director of Boston Children’s Hospital’s Center on Media and Child Health and associate professor of pediatrics at Harvard Medical School
Ryan’s World, According to a Media Psychologist
Unboxing videos are a new thing. And every time we get a new technology, we have a moral panic. This always happens when something is unknown. We want to protect society and certainly our young from something that’s potentially dangerous. And this is a natural reaction because stuff we don’t understand is more likely to be dangerous than stuff that we already figured out.
I think part of the reason that parents don’t like them, speaking from my own experience, is that they are annoying to listen to. They’re made by kids for kids. They have kids’ voices. There are kids not behaving particularly well. They’re screaming, they’re running, they’re laughing. It’s very authentic.
These are little narratives. They have a beginning, a middle and an end. There’s always the ramping up the rising action and the question of “Oh my God, what’s in it? Can we get it open? Can I get the plastic off? Is it going to be any good?” And then they get it out. And so you get that neural reward. Dopamine flies when you open the thing. And then some of them and the good ones will then say, okay, how do we play with this? Because what the kids are really interested in is the experience they’re relating to the emotion.
When they see the same person all the time, they develop affection for that person. So they get to know Ryan and my God, Ryan started when he was four. When someone that your brain views as a friend recommends something or has a good time with something, that makes that seem like a pretty good idea.
Like with all media, it’s the job of the parents to provide context for kids. Rather than saying to kids “This is terrible. You shouldn’t watch this,” say “Let’s watch this together” and “What is it that you like about it? Did you know that Ryan gets paid for showing you that toy? And what does that mean? If he’s getting paid, do you think he’d say he didn’t like it?”
You have these little conversations with them, so they start to develop some critical thinking about the media they’re consuming. They may still love to watch Ryan, but it gives you a framework. When they want a toy, you can ask where they learned about it and remind them that that he’s paid to sell that toy.
I don’t know why parents assume that kids should be consuming all this stuff unsupervised. You don’t send them out to play anything else completely unsupervised. You provide them context about stranger danger and say ‘don’t eat gum off the sidewalk’ and explain stuff to them. This is just another place kids need context. — Pam Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center and a psychology faculty member of Fielding Graduate University.
“Ryan’s World”, According to Two Very Frustrated Parents
My 4-year-old son used to be addicted to watching Ryan until I pulled the plug. I gave him this old iPad just to keep him entertained while I was busy. I downloaded this YouTube app for kids. The one show that he kept begging to have was Ryan. And I was like, who’s that? I sat down and watched it with him and I was just appalled because there’s just all these new toys that kids get every single show. It never shows him playing with the same toys. It’s really excessive. It teaches all this consumerism to kids and I didn’t like it. And what really got me just floored was when Ryan had this shirt with all these company logos. I couldn’t believe it.
He’s only like eight years old, I think. He’s a little child. I couldn’t do it to my kid. Like, my kid is really photogenic. He’s a very beautiful child, you know? He asked a couple times to have his own videos and I just wouldn’t do that. I just don’t know how they sleep at night. It gets me really fired up.
I noticed an uptick in this behavior where every time he goes to a store, he wants something. Because he’s like, “Oh, there’s stuff here. And I see other kids getting a new thing every day, all the time. And why can’t I have that?”
There’s no thought to what kind of long term impact that’s going to have on how they live their life. [It makes kids think] I see something that I want and everybody else can have it at no cost to them, why can’t I have it at no cost to me? I should be able to have everything I ever want. And you can’t live that way. — Becky and Marcus Beach, Arlington, TX