The gift underneath the Christmas tree might have been delivered by Santa, but it’s possible it was inspired by Ryan.

Ryan of Ryan’s World — a social media star whose YouTube videos of unboxing and playing with children’s toys quickly captivated children behind their iPad screens — is the quintessential example of the emergent digital media landscape where children are cultivated as child “influencers.”

Ryan’s YouTube videos, which debuted in 2015, quickly amassed millions of views and subscribers on the social media platform, and catapulted him into a larger spotlight. He now has his own TV show and company, and he’s inspired some of the toys that line the shelves of big box stores like Walmart and Target.

“As a child influencer, he’s being courted by companies to play with the latest toy so that other children can see it. But now, the child influencer himself has become a brand that is then being put into Walmart, and Target, and Amazon as its own force and influence,” said Benjamin Burroughs, an assistant professor of journalism and media studies at UNLV who studies emerging and social media trends. “It’s pretty shocking.”

Ryan has also inspired countless other children and families to take a crack at a new industry — an industry built out of child-created content. And brands are eating it up, with no end in sight.

While toy companies and media producers have always mutually benefited from carefully calculated cross-promotional strategies, Burroughs said this new iteration raises several ethical questions and dilemmas.

“The boundaries between children, and brands, and influencers continue to collapse, and where one begins and where another ends is getting harder and harder to see,” Burroughs said.

Here, Burroughs examines this emergent digital ecosystem, the importance of influencers in catering to children, and the ethical dilemmas that arise from this shift in media industries.

How did you become interested in studying this phenomenon?

I became interested in this because my kids were watching these videos and then asking me to do the things that Ryan’s family was doing. And I thought, ‘Oh, there’s something going on here if my kids are expecting our family to look like Ryan’s family.’ In Ryan’s family, they’re able to constantly consume content and products. They’re opening up a new toy every day, and subsequently playing with that new toy every day, so there’s this constant consumerism that’s being embedded within these messages for children.

We were interested in the ethics of it, but also in examining the shift in content producer — a child content producer, a child influencer, being able to be a part of the larger media ecosystem.

When did this shift begin?

The child influencer phenomenon helped to build out the prominence of the larger influencer model that we’re seeing today. It unfolded with this whole shift in companies turning toward influencers - and they felt that children in particular were the key to connecting with other children.

There’s a long history of using children as actors, or as spokespeople for products, and this is a continuation of that. But this is different, because there’s a feeling of proximity, of closeness to Ryan, who’s just like a regular kid with a regular family. They just have a camera, and they’re filming Ryan playing with toys, and it produces this kind proximity to the audience, which I think is unique compared to other iterations of child influencing.

How are brands taking advantage of this shift to child-created content? What does the example of Ryan’s World show us about this new ecosystem?

The popularity of Ryan’s YouTube videos led to Walmart launching a toy line based on Ryan. Ryan and other child influencers also inspired PocketWatch, a new company that launched in 2017 and is now partnering with the biggest producers of child-created content on YouTube.

I think Ryan’s World is the most substantive example of the success of child-created content. Ryan is the first major force. His channel, and his subsequent company, is unique in the number of views, and impact, and the ability to create a larger kind of media empire from just the videos that he and his family posted on social media.

It’s kid’s entertainment. Children watching other children playing with toys is something that appeals to a mass audience of children. And I don’t see it slowing down any time soon. There’s been a ton of copycats of Ryan — different families that have begun to film their own kids playing with toys. So, you have hundreds of accounts now that are extremely successful that have copied this formula, and brands haven’t stopped or slowed down at all in getting into the space. So there’s money to be made with children, and families, and branding opportunities. That’s just going to continue into the future.

There’s an obvious kind of overlap — between mobile technology, children having access to the technology, and parents offloading parenting practices onto mobile phones — that’s emerged. It created this great space for brands to enter right into that equation.

Is YouTube the main social media site for child-created content, or are there other sites that cater to this new phenomenon?

YouTube is the primary platform for child influencers. I’m sure it exists on other platforms, but not on the level of YouTube, which is where we’ve done all of our research, and will continue to do our research because it’s the primary place children are going. I think that’s because of the availability of mobile phones, as well as YouTube on mobile phones, and the ability to access the content everywhere you’re at.

You don’t really have child influencers popping up on Twitter, for example, and tweeting to a child audience. YouTube is visual, it’s tactile, and really easy to navigate and to get to new content. My 2-year-old can go through and access content, and get to the content that he wants to watch, which is a little scary if you think about it.

How does the newest iteration of child influencing differ from traditional media like television shows and advertisements? How are brands taking advantage of it?

Ryan and YouTubers and influencers cultivate a relationship with their audience in ways that didn’t happen with an advertisement on TV, or a show. YouTubers have a great understanding of their audience and are constantly trying to nurture and build that relationship, because their value is in the perception of their connection to the audience.

And that’s what brands value. So, a child influencer is going to make sure that you feel connected to them. I think it is that sense of connection that’s different from other forms of media that have intensified in this child influencer moment. They definitely existed before, but right now, I think we can point to that level of intensification of connection with the audience, and intensification of the brand injecting itself into that relationship.

There’s also a level of proximity that happens with YouTube where you feel like you could get a camera, and you could be Ryan. That’s the kind of allure of YouTube — the allure of thinking that anyone can do it, and that I could be that next big name on YouTube.

Major companies have become more aware of children as their own demographic, and the increased importance of children in driving family purchasing. That’s part of the reason why Disney Plus, Netflix, Hulu, and Amazon have invested heavily in more children’s content.

YouTube is the space for child influencers to build up their relationships, channels, and platforms, but from there, they can become larger media players and influencers on a larger scale.

What ethical questions does this raise?

I think for all of us, the question is, is this a good advancement? What does it do to change children’s entertainment? What does it mean to have a child that has all this attention, and has all this ability to influence the perceptions of family by other children? And what does it mean to be a child that consumes constantly? I think these are the kind of ethical questions that we need to grapple with.

Children are being targeted by child influencers in ways that parents may not be cognizant of or aware of, and historically, advertising to children has been regulated by the government. We’ve always had a kind of baseline awareness of how much branding and consumption messaging was good for children. But in the YouTube space, that all has gone away.

There is kind of a pernicious promise of YouTube that’s all about consumption. And connecting consumption and play in a way that creates this need for constant consumption, not only of YouTube content, but of the branded content itself.

I think definitely there needs to be a larger discussion about parents having conversations with their children about consumption practices, about what they’re watching and how they’re understanding what it means to be an influencer, and what it means to be a family. That needs to be balanced with this whole idea of empowerment that’s coming through YouTube, which I think is a positive ramification.

YouTube is allowing children to have their own voice, it’s allowing them to be an influencer, which means that they and their families have access to opportunities for making money that maybe they didn’t have before.