8.8 billion Youtube views!!!

Ryan is your average five-year-old. He likes playing with toy cars, riding tricycles, and going down water slides. His mom, like most parents, loves to capture and share these moments. What’s different about Ryan is that these everyday events — opening a new action figure or going to Chuck E. Cheese’s — are watched around the world by hundreds of millions of other kids.

The family’s channel, Ryan ToysReview, was created in March of 2015, and initially, didn’t get many views. But about four months in, the channel published this video, and views started doubling with every passing month. Ryan’s mom, who has so far declined to share her name, left her job as a high school chemistry teacher to work on the YouTube channel full time.

The youngest star YouTube has ever seen

For the last 18 weeks and counting, Ryan ToysReview has been the most popular channel on YouTube in the US, and the second largest in the world, a bigger attraction than household names like PewDiePie and Justin Bieber, and media empires like BuzzFeed, The Tonight Show, and the WWE. That viewership translates to around $1 million a month in advertising revenue alone.

“He is definitely the youngest YouTube star we’ve ever seen,” said Josh Cohen, an industry analyst and founder of TubeFilter. When the channel launched, Ryan was just three years old. “It’s the biggest of this genre of programming that is getting billions of views a week on YouTube. Really nobody is talking about it, but it’s crazy once you start scratching the surface.”

The phenomenon of reviewing toys on YouTube isn’t new. In the fall of 2013, a channel called DisneyCollecterBR made its way into the top 10 most-viewed channels. It was run by an adult woman who never showed her face. She opened toys and played with them, speaking softly, never moving the camera from a single closeup shot. By the summer of 2014, she routinely topped the list of the most-viewed channels in the US.

The genre skyrocketed once kids became the hosts. In March of last year, just as Ryan’s family was launching their channel, media outlets were reporting on another family that struck rich by sharing videos of their children simply playing with toys. According to a report from The Guardian, 20 of the top 100 channels on YouTube are focused on toys, collecting upwards of 4.5 billion views a month. Before Ryan stepped in front of the camera, he was a viewer.

A fifth of YouTube’s top 100 channels are about toys

“Ryan was watching a lot of toy review channels — some of his favorites are EvanTubeHD and Hulyan Maya — because they used to make a lot of videos about Thomas The Tank Engine, and Ryan was super into Thomas,” his mother explained in an interview with TubeFilter. “One day, he asked me,”How come I’m not on YouTube when all the other kids are?’ So we just decided — yeah, we can do that. Then, we took him to the store to get his very first toy — I think it was a Lego train set — and it all started from there.”

But while Ryan’s channel is part of a broader trend, it has achieved a scale unlike anything that came before it. Less than two years old, Ryan ToysReview already has 5.5 million subscribers, more than the two channels that inspired it combined. Produced by his mother, Ryan’s channel has perfected the art of this strange new genre, a mash-up of personal vlog and “unboxing” video, a blend of innocent childhood antics and relentless, often overwhelming consumerism.

The premise of the channel, as the name implies, is that Ryan reviews toys. And in the first video ever posted to the channel, which you can see above, he does just that, at least to the degree a three-year-old can articulate his thoughts on a set of Lego Duplo blocks. He “unboxes” the pieces, sets them up, and plays. The video is slow and static, a single shot held for nearly 10 minutes. Ryan takes his time building and playing. He signs off with a simple wave and “see you next time.”

Increasingly, it feels like Ryan is reading from a script

But over time, the act of reviewing toys has swelled into something very different. In the second video, Ryan is up to two toys, and over time the videos have grown to feature dozens of toys in a single episode. In the most popular clip the channel has posted, Ryan is given a hundred toys at once. We only see Ryan playing with each toy for a few seconds, and by the end he’s wading through a huge pile of freshly opened and quickly cast off toys, shoveling them on top of one another. The video has 568 million views.

In more recent clips, the pretense of Ryan actually playing with certain toys has been totally cast aside. Listen to Ryan dutifully speak his lines in the video below. He prepares to open a plastic egg. “I wonder what’s inside it. I’m so excited,” he says, his voice devoid of both wonder and excitement.

We get a couple of quick close-ups of the car, which Ryan never plays with, before cutting to Ryan’s repeated requests, smiling and waving the whole time, for viewers to subscribe.

The channel often crams the name of four or five toys into the title of each video, and the description stretches on for hundreds of words, with dozens of links to name-brand items. “His parents are really smart about it, too,” says TubeFilter’s Cohen. “They are playing with toys that Ryan likes, but they are also presenting him with toys that are popular across YouTube.”

YouTube stars are driving retail sales

The toy industry is paying close attention to stars like Ryan. “If a product gets ten million, twenty millions views, and you see that Ryan loves it, or other kids love it, it has a huge impact at retail,” says Jim Silver, CEO of the review site Toys, Tots, Pets, and More. “He’s really the youngest success that we’ve seen. Most of the time the kids were in the six plus range, just because of the vocabulary and the maturity to do a review.”

Silver paid Ryan’s family to attend his company’s winter showcase, and he says it’s common for toymakers and retailers to sponsor videos or send free product to popular YouTubers. “When you have the child who resonates with other kids, it can really take off. Especially since the kids are watching so much on their phones at home.”

Subliminal advertising at its finest

The line between toymakers and homegrown reviewers is murky. “It is a new, very creative and effective way, even if it’s a sort of subliminal, form of advertising for the toy companies,” says Jason Moser, a toy industry analyst with Motley Fool. “I imagine we’ll see more and more of this.” The family has said that it pays for all the toys Ryan reviews, but his father also told TubeFilter that channel was getting into the business of branded videos. Disclaimers, which are required by the FTC, have begun appearing on sponsored episodes.

The nature of these videos also pairs well with YouTube’s broader goals. “The algorithm play there happened to mesh well with the innate viewing habits of the audience for Ryan ToysReview,” said Cohen. “YouTube changed their algorithm to value longer watch time. The kids that watch these videos are watching for a longer period of time than a typical viewer watches YouTube. A three or four year old who gives them the iPad, my guess is they are watching the whole video, and YouTube really likes it when they are watching the whole video.”

Ryan’s success, in other words, translates into more money for a number of larger corporations. Before the YouTube era, there was no way for the antics of an ordinary kid to be commercialized, reaching hundreds of millions of viewers each week, without entering into some kind of formal contract with a major broadcaster. Today, an average family can find themselves running an extremely lucrative business from the comfort of their living room.

Many states have no rules around children performing

That raises a number of important and difficult questions. In traditional film and television productions, rules govern how many hours a day a child as young as Ryan can work. No such rules exist for Ryan’s job on YouTube. “All of the laws for child performers are regulated by state. The federal government leaves it to them,” said Toni Casala, CEO of Children in Film. “There are seventeen states which basically have basically no child labor laws around performance.”

According to the Texas Workforce Commission, for example, “When a business is owned or operated by a parent or legal custodian, the parent or custodian may employ their own children at any age to work any hours, so long as the work is non-hazardous (not prohibited) and the child works under the parent or custodian’s direct supervision.”

Ryan is on camera even when he’s not playing

To their credit, Ryan’s parents seem to have a sensible approach. His mother told TubeFilter, “We post a new video every day, and we typically film two to three videos at a time two to three times per week. We try not to interfere with Ryan’s pre-pre-school schedule, so a majority of the filming takes place during the weekend, and then we’ll edit while he’s in school.”

But the channel isn’t just Ryan playing with toys anymore. Whether he’s going to Disneyland, getting a haircut, or running a fever, his parents are the ones deciding how much to film and what to share.

His mom wants to make sure Ryan is in control. “Right now, he loves making videos. Every time I tell him we’re going to film, he gets so excited,” she told TubeFilter. “As long as he’s loving it and it doesn’t disrupt his daily routine, we plan on continuing. But the moment he’s not having fun any more, that’s when it will be time to stop.”

But would Ryan feel comfortable asking his parents to stop, or have the language to express how always being filmed makes him feel? What does a five-year-old think when he’s scared, and his mom comes to the rescue, but never turns off the camera? We’re in uncharted territory here. These video views are now worth millions of dollars, and that’s a hard thing to give up.

A tempting bargain for any family

How should parents feel about Ryan’s channel? On the one hand, the endless flood of toys he gets seems like it would spoil any child. On the other hand, the About page on Ryan’s channel says that most of the toys are then donated to charity. And while Ryan’s behavior on camera can sometimes seem scripted or forced, the vast majority of the time, he seems like a kid having fun. It’s easy to get cynical about the family’s sudden success. But for many parents, life is a constant struggle to balance work with family. If you could secure your children’s financial future simply by playing with them on camera, wouldn’t you?

Increasingly the videos aren’t just about opening new toys, but about sharing the substance of the family’s daily routine, the stuff of life itself. Ryan’s family started a second channel that operates more like a traditional vlog. The camera, which is usually something as simple as a smartphone, is never off. Ryan may be the youngest YouTube star currently on the platform, but his twin sisters, who appeared on YouTube when they were just weeks old, are getting an even earlier start.

Photo-illustration James Bareham

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