Beyond Unboxings: The Future of Kids Internet Content

Kid watching tv over youtube logos
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A new study from British ad agency Precise TV and research group Giraffe Insights sounds like great news for digital marketing associates. Precise and Giraffe surveyed 3,000 American kids between the ages of 2 and 12, along with their parents, about their online viewing habits.

The results back up what Nielsen and other streaming industry watchers have been reporting for some time: Kids love YouTube and spend way more time watching content there than any other platform. Certainly including broadcast television. 81% of the kids Precise and Giraffe surveyed said they’d recently consumed content on the main YouTube service. (That figure doesn’t even include YouTube Shorts, which 39% of the kids surveyed said they’d watched recently.) In second place were all collective video-on-demand services, seen by just 62% of the respondents.

Kids aren’t just watching way more YouTube than Netflix or Disney+ or Peacock; they’re also paying more attention. Precise and Giraffe found that the surveyed children recalled YouTube ads significantly better than ads they viewed on other platforms. Bear in mind, that’s happening even though a lot of YouTube advertising comes with a handy SKIP ADS option, which is unavailable when you’re watching, say, Nickelodeon on TV. That means kids are choosing to view ads on YouTube, even when they have the option of getting back to Blippi or whatever it was they were watching. Another Precise and Giraffe survey released last year had similar results with teens ages 13-17. 60% of them were more likely to watch ads on YouTube than skip them. 

There are several potential explanations for this behavior. YouTube and its parent company Google have years of data about their viewers and about the content being viewed, allowing them to powerfully target advertising in a direct, almost clinical fashion. Even though YouTube is legally barred from using its traditional ad-targeting software on specific underage viewers, its algorithms have a ton of input about general audience behavior and can make very educated, high-level decisions about what ads to serve on what videos to maximize viewership.

Nickelodeon, on the other hand, knows kids are watching. But beyond that, it’s largely guesswork. So you get lots of spots for toys and video games and theme parks and animated films and sugary cereals and other generic stuff we associate with young consumers.

In addition, a lot of YouTube content closely mirrors advertising anyway, blurring distinctions between Show and Commercial Break. That’s less true on broadcast TV. There, the long-time standard has been that shows need both an educational or uplifting component, rather than existing purely to market products and experiences to young fans, and where pauses for commercial breaks are clearly noted.

Some of YouTube’s most popular genres among young viewers are Unboxings, in which influencers act extremely excited while opening up new toys; Reaction Videos, in which influencers act extremely excited while watching new shows and films; and Let’s Plays, in which influencers act extremely excited while playing new video games.

Would a young, impressionable viewer with only a few years of experience watching media necessarily even know when one of these videos has switched over to a conventional paid advertisement? The entire video, in some ways, is an advertisement.

Precise and Giraffe point to one more explanation for the popularity of YouTube ads among the young: so-called “Pester Power.” Essentially, kids watching YouTube with their parents or guardians now have a fresh opportunity to request new toys and products that they want. More than 50% of the responding kids said that they consistently watch YouTube with a family member, and 60% of the parents surveyed said they were more likely to purchase a product when they saw a commercial for it with their child.

At least based on these figures, it’s hard to avoid the obvious conclusion that YouTube is having an extremely significant impact on the young minds who are watching it all day. That’s certainly great news for Mattel and Hasbro, and a promising opportunity for internet creators with younger audiences in mind. It also raises pressing questions about the responsibility of digital media creators who are now wielding this immense power.

A 2020 report from Michigan Medicine and Common Sense Media found that 1 in 4 videos watched by kids ages 0-8 on YouTube were intended for older viewers, despite the launch of the child-specific YouTube Kids platform in 2015. It also found that advertising on kids’ videos is pervasive, with 95% featuring some form of advertising and a third containing three or more ads. Finally, 22% of the videos aimed at kids that were surveyed were considered “high in consumerism,” centering around toys, merch, or other branded products.

When we think of classic kids TV, we think of shows like “Mr. Rogers Neighborhood,” “Sesame Street,” and “Reading Rainbow,” which all got their start on public television. I highly recommend the “Reading Rainbow” documentary, “Butterfly in the Sky,” which is now on Netflix. It gives you real insight into how many smart, thoughtful, passionate people came together to make sure that the show was not just entertaining but enlightening for young viewers. Educators and parents and others concerned with nurturing young minds got together at places like the Children’s Television Workshop and hammered out shows that would not only grab kids’ attention. But maybe also enrich their minds or teach them their letters and numbers.

That’s not to say there wasn’t also value in “Masters of the Universe,” which existed purely to sell toys. Kids love He-Man. But TV has always maintained this balance, between Muppets teaching you “near” vs. “far” and shirtless barbarian guys fighting evil sorcerers. The YouTube Ethos, on the other hand, has always been to “do it for the views.” Whatever gets the most attention and captures the most eyeballs is the best, and the top creators are the ones who most consistently reach the largest audience. Doing literally anything for attention is how the Paul Brothers went from the world’s worst neighbors to all-stars in the world of sports entertainment. No one was asking what lessons kids were going to get out of Dude Perfect making trick shots. They’re just fun to watch and immediately satisfying.

And while there are isolated examples of YouTubers making great, responsible, educational content for young people – my nephew Dougie is a huge fan of Ms. Rachel – there’s no real organizational or systemic support for this kind of work. Ms. Rachel just happens to be great with kids and fortunately, she started making videos. But now that we know, basically for sure, that kids are done with TV and ready to watch YouTube all day, is it time – as a society – that we focus some resources on putting great, responsible content for them, which isn’t driven entirely by a desire to sell them soda and toys? 

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