Why Are We Obsessed With 'Unboxing' Videos?

Of the many videos recently uploaded to YouTube, the one above caught our eye. Titled "Num Noms Ice Cream Sundae Sampler Surprise Set with Disney Frozen Fever Birthday Anna Elsa NumNoms," the video features a woman's hands, their elaborately lacquered nails featuring Minnie Mouse, opening a box of toys as her high-pitched voice lyrically guides her viewers—most of whom can barely speak themselves—through the components of the set.

"Time to make an awesome ice cream," she coos, as she piles the plastic bits, called NumNoms, into a plastic cone, waving each piece into a totem pole of sorts. "How tall can we go?" 

Welcome to the world of "unboxing," where products get unwrapped and torn from their packages and shown to an online audience. These videos take after the "haul videos" from earlier this decade, in which adults showcase the stuff they buy during a shopping spree, and the “geekporn” videos that cram the Internet immediately after a new version of a phone or other coveted personal tech comes out.

But unboxing videos are a little different: They portray adults unwrapping children's toys, often with a disembodied voice that sounds as if the narrator is playing with the child. Others choose music instead of voice overs. All focus on the big reveal, which can come many times in a single video, especially when it comes to objects like Kinder Eggs.

And before you dismiss this phenomenon as just another weird trend indicative of our digital obsessions, consider this: unboxing videos routinely take a few of the top 10 spots on most-viewed YouTube watchlists, among the music videos from international superstars and the latest viral prank. There’s clearly something alluring about this unwrapping-by-proxy for millions of people. What is it?

Unboxing video stars are notoriously difficult to reach and private. As the New York Times reported, the star of the above-cited video is Melissa Lima, a.k.a. DisneyCollector or FunToyzCollector, an allegedly 20-something Brazilian native who now lives in Westchester, New York, and may be worth millions thanks to ad revenue and endorsement deals from her videos. One of her most popular videos, “Angry Birds Toy Surprise Jake and the Never Land Pirates Disney Pixar Cars 2 Easter Egg SpongeBob” (unboxing videos rely on keyword searches and often feature dense titles that may not be poetic but are efficient in driving traffic), has garnered more than 106 million views.

But mental_floss spoke to unboxing star Melissa Hunter, a 48-year-old mother who, with her now 12-year-old daughter Gracie, launched the YouTube channel Mommy and Gracie in June 2012. The series features the slapstick, often klutzy duo unboxing toys—predominantly dolls—and reviewing them. The Hunters started the series on a whim and have become quite successful, garnering 587,000 subscribers and 295 millions views (and about 17 million per month). They’ve become a household name, particularly among moms and kids, who range in age from toddlers to tweens.

In November, the Hunters attended the Chicago Toy and Game Fair as special guests and unboxed toys for an hour during an event billed as the world's largest and possibly first livestreaming of unboxing.

Hunter suspects the reason why her unboxing videos are so popular is that they feature both her and her daughter sharing a spirit of curiosity and play. When she was a child, her father spent hours playing with her—a luxury of time many parents can't afford today.

But while Hunter understands how her videos may fill a gap, she’s not necessarily entirely comfortable with it. Her most ardent fans are toddlers who can barely speak. Hunter cites numerous children who’ve come up to her and called her “Mommy” while their parents look on quizzically. “It’s concerning to know that these kids are watching me and my daughter and their parents have no idea what they’re watching,” she tells mental_floss. She’s not alone in her concern; many parents say they are mystified by how bedazzled their children are by unboxing videos.

Perhaps they shouldn’t be so surprised. Hunter gave a talk in New York City in November at StreamCon, a new conference for digital content producers, about why toddler-aimed unboxing videos are solid business. She cited some astonishing statistics: 25 percent of children under the age of 2 in the U.S. have their own tablet, and 80 percent of parents give their device to their child aged 0–2. A look at Google Trends shows that unboxing as a search term has spiked, and not just in America: Countries in South Asia are leading the pack in terms of interest, with tech unboxings aimed at adults being the most popular. 

Psychologists don't think unboxing necessarily has a bad impact on kids—or adults. Pamela Rutledge, director of the Media Psychology Research Center, which studies how people interact with media across platforms, thinks unboxing videos feed into a primal curiosity and desire to know what's hidden inside something. The desire to be surprised might be part of our essential makeup.

"The human brain is wired to be curious," she says. "What's in stuff? What's behind stuff? We have a natural proclivity to know."

Rutledge says the unboxing phenomenon isn't new: she points to gumball machines spitting out toys, cereal boxes with surprise gadgets, and popsicles that reveal a joke or quote on the stick only once they’re eaten up. 

This element of surprise has a couple of uses for us, and it varies by age. Consider a toddler watching an unboxing video. They watch a box being taken apart or a plastic egg being opened. Fingers grab the product inside, toy with it, fit it in shapes or assemble parts together. Rutledge says that for the very youngest viewers, unboxing videos can act as both a cognitive experience and a reassurance mechanism.

"For younger kids, they'll watch unboxing videos repeatedly, the way they like to have stories told to them repeatedly," explains Rutledge, herself a mother of six. It's comforting for kids to see the same “surprise” come out from packaging, even though they know what’s inside.

As kids grow older, the element of surprise becomes more of an exploratory event, Rutledge says. Tween, teen, and adult tech geeks who are transfixed by unboxing videos are often looking to buy the product themselves.

"They're sort of how-to videos,” Rutledge says. “You're imagining yourself go through the process [of opening the box]. In contrast to advertisements, these are real."

It's easy to dismiss unboxing videos as more proof of our digital lives being dictated by the Internet, but Rutledge argues that these videos—as well as other online games that have risen in popularity among children—shouldn't be cast aside as silly or brain numbing.

"We have a negative understanding of vicarious in our society—that you're not doing your own living,” she says. Unboxing, she says, “is a different thing. It's more of an exploratory learning process."

“For kids, handing them a toy ice cream parlor [for example]—it's already done the work for you. There's no imagination, no building, thinking, creativity, or problem solving,” she continues. “With these videos and other games, there's learning: How are they putting it together? How are they using the Play-Doh? How are they making different creations?"

Screenshots from FunToyzCollector, YouTube

10 Facts About the Winter Solstice, the Shortest Day of the Year

Matt Cardy/Getty Images
Matt Cardy/Getty Images

Amid the whirl of the holiday season, many are vaguely aware of the approach of the winter solstice, but how much do you really know about it? Whether you're a fan of winter or just wish it would go away, here are 10 things to note—or even celebrate—about the shortest day of the year.

1. The winter solstice HAPPENS ON DECEMBER 21/22 in 2019.

Sun setting behind a tree in the winter
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The date of the winter solstice varies from year to year, and can fall anywhere between December 20 and December 23, with the 21st or 22nd being the most common dates. The reason for this is because the tropical year—the time it takes for the sun to return to the same spot relative to Earth—is different from the calendar year. The next solstice occurring on December 20 will not happen until 2080, and the next December 23 solstice will not occur until 2303.

2. The winter solstice hAPPENS AT A SPECIFIC, BRIEF MOMENT.

sun setting through the trees
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Not only does the solstice occur on a specific day, but it also occurs at a specific time of day, corresponding to the instant the North Pole is aimed furthest away from the sun on the 23.5 degree tilt of the Earth's axis. This is also the time when the sun shines directly over the Tropic of Capricorn. In 2019, this moment occurs at 4:19 a.m. UTC (Coordinated Universal Time) on December 22. For those on Eastern Standard Time, the solstice will occur at 11:19 p.m. on December 21. And regardless of where you live, the solstice happens at the same moment for everyone on the planet.

3. The winter solstice mARKS THE LONGEST NIGHT AND SHORTEST DAY OF THE YEAR FOR THE NORTHERN HEMISPHERE.

sun setting over Central Park
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As most are keenly aware, daylight hours grow shorter and shorter as the winter solstice approaches, and begin to slowly lengthen afterward. It's no wonder that the day of the solstice is referred to in some cultures as the "shortest day of the year" or "extreme of winter." New York City will experience 9 hours and 15 minutes of sunlight, compared to 15 hours and 5 minutes on the summer solstice. Helsinki, Finland, will get 5 hours and 49 minutes of light. Barrow, Alaska, will not have a sunrise at all (and hasn't since mid-November; its next sunrise will be on January 22), while the North Pole has had no sunrise since October. The South Pole, though, will be basking in the glow of the midnight sun, which won't set until March.

4. ANCIENT CULTURES VIEWED THE WINTER SOLSTICE AS A TIME OF DEATH AND REBIRTH.

snow on tree branches
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The seeming death of the light and very real threat of starvation over the winter months would have weighed heavily on early societies, who held varied solstice celebrations and rites meant to herald the return of the sun and hope for new life. Scandinavian and Germanic pagans lit fires and may have burned Yule logs as a symbolic means of welcoming back the light. Cattle and other animals were slaughtered around midwinter, followed by feasting on what was the last fresh meat for several months. The modern Druidic celebration Alban Arthan reveres the death of the Old Sun and birth of the New Sun.

5. THE  shortest DAY of the year MARKS THE DISCOVERY OF NEW AND STRANGE WORLDS.

Pilgrims landing at Plymouth Rock
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

The Pilgrims arrived at Plymouth on December 21, 1620, to found a society that would allow them to worship freely. On the same day in 1898, Pierre and Marie Curie discovered radium, ushering in an atomic age. And on December 21, 1968, the Apollo 8 spacecraft launched, becoming the first manned moon mission.

6. THE WORD SOLSTICE TRANSLATES ROUGHLY TO "SUN STANDS STILL."

colorful sunset
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Solstice derives from the Latin scientific term solstitium, containing sol, which means "sun," and the past participle stem of sistere, meaning "to make stand." This comes from the fact that the sun’s position in the sky relative to the horizon at noon, which increases and decreases throughout the year, appears to pause in the days surrounding the solstice. In modern times, we view the phenomenon of the solstice from the position of space, and of the Earth relative to the sun. Earlier people, however, were thinking about the sun's trajectory, how long it stayed in the sky and what sort of light it cast.

7. STONEHENGE IS ALIGNED TO THE SUNSET ON the WINTER SOLSTICE.

Stonehenge sunset
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The primary axis of the megalithic monument is oriented to the setting sun, while Newgrange, another structure built around the same time as Stonehenge, lines up with the winter solstice sunrise. Some have theorized that the position of the sun was of religious significance to the people who built Stonehenge, while other theories hold that the monument is constructed along natural features that happen to align with it. The purpose of Stonehenge is still subject to debate, but its importance on the winter solstice continues into the modern era, as thousands of hippies, pagans, and other types of enthusiasts gather there every year to celebrate the occasion.

8. ANCIENT ROMANS CELEBRATED REVERSALS AT THE MIDWINTER FESTIVAL OF SATURNALIA.

Saturnalia parade
A Saturnalia celebration in England in 2012.
Christopher Furlong/Getty Images

The holiday, which began as a festival to honor the agricultural god Saturn, was held to commemorate the dedication of his temple in 497 BCE. It quickly became a time of widespread revelry and debauchery in which societal roles were overturned, with masters serving their slaves and servants being allowed to insult their masters. Mask-wearing and play-acting were also part of Saturnalia's reversals, with each household electing a King of Misrule. Saturnalia was gradually replaced by Christmas throughout the Roman Empire, but many of its customs survive as Christmas traditions.

9. SOME TRADITIONS HOLD THAT DARK SPIRITS WALK THE EARTH ON THE WINTER SOLSTICE.

Snowy woods
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The Iranian festival of Yalda is celebrated on the longest night of the year. In pre-Islamic times, it heralded the birth of Mithra, the ancient sun god, and his triumph over darkness. Zoroastrian lore holds that evil spirits wander the Earth and the forces of the destructive spirit Ahriman are strongest on this long night. People are encouraged to stay up most of the night in the company of one another, eating, talking, and sharing poetry and stories, in order to avoid any brushes with dark entities. Beliefs about the presence of evil on the longest night are also echoed in Celtic and Germanic folklore.

10. SOME THOUGHT THE WORLD WOULD END ON THE 2012 WINTER SOLSTICE.

snowy woods with sun through the trees
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December 21, 2012 corresponds to the date 13.0.0.0.0 in the Mesoamerican Long Count calendar used by the ancient Maya, marking the end of a 5126-year cycle. Some people feared this juncture would bring about the end of the world or some other cataclysmic event. Others took a more New Age-y view (literally) and believed it heralded the birth of a new era of deep transformation for Earth and its inhabitants. In the end, neither of these things appeared to occur, leaving the world to turn through winter solstices indefinitely, or at least as long as the sun lasts.

A version of this story originally ran in 2015.

Cats Make Facial Expressions, But Not Everyone Can Read Them

takoburito/iStock via Getty Images
takoburito/iStock via Getty Images

Science has finally confirmed what humans have suspected for centuries: Cats are inscrutable creatures prone to peculiar behavior. Some of us, however, are still capable of picking up on their subtle emotional cues, including facial expressions, without relying on clues like tails, ears, or whiskers.

This new evidence of a cat’s slightly malleable face comes from a study in the journal Animal Welfare. Researchers at the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, recruited 6329 participants to watch a series of 20 video clips featuring cats reacting to either a positive or negative event. A positive interaction was defined as a feline approaching a human for a treat or an owner-identified action the cat traditionally found pleasant, like climbing into a favorite spot. A negative response was when a cat was confronted with something it wanted to avoid, was prevented from going into an area or outside, or was displaying an obvious sign of distress, like growling. (Sounds were edited out.) Most clips were from YouTube, though some were submitted by veterinarians and university colleagues. Breeds with long hair that might obscure facial changes were omitted. Most respondents were cat owners, and 74 percent were women 18 to 44 years old.

Using these brief clips, the researchers asked subjects to classify the cats as exhibiting positive or negative behavior by relying only on closely cropped footage of a cat’s face. They couldn’t rely on the tail or any other body language. The result? The average score was just 59 percent correct, accurately identifying a cat’s mood in an average of 12 out of the 20 clips. These humans, in other words, had little idea what a cat was experiencing based solely on their faces.

So why do researchers think they have any expression at all? Roughly 13 percent of subjects scored well on the test, getting at least 15 of the 20 questions correct. Those that did well were generally people who had extensive experience with cats, like veterinarians. That led researchers to conclude that people can become more attuned to the subtle flickers of emotion that may pass over a cat’s face.

“They could be naturally brilliant, and that’s why they become veterinarians,” Georgia Mason, a behavioral biologist and the study’s senior author, told The Washington Post. “But they also have a lot of opportunity to learn, and they’ve got a motivation to learn, because they’re constantly deciding: Is this cat better? Do we need to change the treatment? Does this cat need to go home? Is this cat about to take a chunk out of my throat?”

The paper appears to offer encouraging evidence that “cat whisperers” really do exist. If you’re curious whether you could be one of them, you can take a shortened version of the video test online.

[h/t Washington Post]

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