Most of the time, I’m lag behind the current landscape of memes and internet-associated scandals, watching the juggernauts whiz past with blinking, bewildered eyes. How nice, then, to find that I’m not as out-of-touch with modern happenings as I usually am. To whit, unboxing websites, children, gambling and YouTube stars.
In a nutshell, YouTube “stars”—that is, those with tens/hundreds of thousands of subscribers (even millions)—are being paid “six-figure sums” to promote gambling. The “gambling” takes the form of virtual boxes that you can virtually open with a virtual box-cutter for a chance to win brand-name shoes, electronics, games or even full-sized automobiles. Depending on which unboxing site you visit, a successful bid to slice open a box can range anywhere from a couple of YankeeBucks to thousands.
Some sites even allow finetuning, enabling you to specify the probability of winning an item and, thus, have the bid amount amended. Let’s say you want to win a Nifty-Gadget that sells for $500. If you specify “5%” probability of winning (i.e. your odds of winning Nifty-Gadget are 1-in-20), you may have to pay, say, $30 for the privilege of doing that virtual unboxing. Increase the probability to “95%” (i.e. increasing your odds to 19-in-20 of winning Nifty Gadget) and the price you have to pay goes up quite sharply, although it’s still below the High Street recommended retail price.
So far, so dandy. But how are these websites promoted? Well, the websites behind these unboxing “games” pay high-profile YouTubers serious cash to create, produce and air videos about the unboxing site to their subscribers. Many go for a “cinéma vérité” perspective, showing their purportedly genuine excitement and reactions as they bid for and unbox their “winnings”. So what? you say. Here’s where it gets interesting. The majority of YouTube stars receiving such sponsorship money have channels that are overwhelmingly aimed at…minors.
Yes, here’s where we are right now at this wonderful progress-laden Horizon of New Technologies, and I can’t say I’m surprised, although it’s still amazing how little time it’s taken to get to this point.
Are you a parent who gives your child a smartphone or tablet open to YouTube Kids or a game whenever you’re out and about? Convenient, right? Keeps the kid occupied and quiet, right? So the kid doesn’t bother you while you’re doing, you know, important stuff, right? Well congratulations and welcome to the next stage of their modern curriculum. No no, it doesn’t depend on you at all, except for paying for that data plan every month. You just sit back and relax. What could possibly go wrong?
Now that you have completely outsourced parenting to a disinterested playlist/channel that you have no intention of vetting, beyond a friend telling you, “I hear [YouTube channel name/game with in-app purchases] is great for keeping the little ones quiet!”… Now that your children have come to the absolutely correct conclusion that what they see on that tiny screen is not just more entertaining, but also more funny, more dependable and more colourful than you … Now that your children have learnt to depend on said websites on said small screens for their it’s-so-addictive-it-should-be-illegal dopamine hits, let’s fling them their cute little graduation hats and welcome them to the next phase of their online education: unboxing sites. Yes, from the same channels that gave them playing in slime, doing stupid pranks, saying things in stupid voices, and generally carrying on like developmentally challenged cockroaches (all things we know kids love), they can now see how much Fun! and Excitement! there is in spending someone else’s real money to win useless things at the-House-always-wins odds. Kudos to you if you at least kept your credit card details out of your offspring’s jam-covered mitts; bankruptcy court if you haven’t.
At one time in recent history, the outsourcing of one’s children’s upbringing was the territory of the rich. Or, richer, at any rate. I wrote a little about it in my book, The Dog Ate My Experiment!, where I noted that one of the benefits of homeschooling was the incredible opportunity to develop a strong and lasting relationship with your own child. (After a year of screaming, ripping your hair out, and wondering why your child hates you when they used to get quite good grades at school. I call that the Homeschooling Parent Adjustment Year. Anyway, I digress.) I used a very real example from life, citing a woman I knew (who had a cook, cleaner, driver, gofer and nanny) who visited the park with her children one day. When one of them fell down and hurt himself, he ran right past his mother and straight to the nanny. And the mother noted that she had essentially lost her children and their childhoods. And I agreed.
The situation we’re facing now is many times more dire than that. For one, the nanny is a human being, just as colourless and equally as vulnerable to frazzles and snaps as the rest of us. That iPad screen, on the other hand, is indefatigable, has infinite material to show, doesn’t scold or strike a child (unless it falls on his/her head), and plays each video at such exquisite resolution and in such glorious colours that, quite frankly, Reality doesn’t stand a chance. (And, after all, wasn’t that why you bought it, so you could hyper-amp Reality for the best-looking selfies and social cachet?)
For two, at least someone was watching the nanny. Maybe not all the time, but the paid help knew that the employer could bluster in at any point and demand to know why little Johnny was attempting to renovate the bathroom naked with the cats, assorted Lego bricks and several tubes of Super Glue. This doesn’t happen with the Virtual Babysitter because the only mess that’s made is the one inside your child’s head. It’s a more malignant mess, but it can also remain blissfully invisible. Parents who don’t know (or don’t want to know) any better, are quite happy to have Johnny watch hour upon hour of mindless video without the slightest thought of sitting down next to him to see what exactly what it is that he’s watching. I mean, if a channel has “kids”, “slime”, “cartoon”, “comic”, “preschool”or “puppy” in the description, it must be okay, right? No further investigation necessary and, besides, you have places to go, people to meet. What could possibly go wrong?
For three, as I alluded to earlier, unlike a nanny, Virtual Babysitter delivers dopamine hits on a constant basis. The laugh tracks encourage and condition your children to accept certain behaviours as normal and even feel pleasure when they see the same kind of scenario played out in the next video and behave as they’ve been taught, whether it’s two cartoon characters hugging or decapitating each other. Certain behaviours, attitudes and knowledge get reinforced through repetition. That’s the reason you learnt your times table by rote, and Virtual Babysitter is doing the same kind of thing, except in 4K and a billion colours.
For four, Virtual Assistant has no morals. Unlike you (I hope), it doesn’t give your child unwavering guidelines as to what’s right or wrong. (As we all know, depending on their age, the greys in any situation come later.) And if you’ve been stupid enough to hand your credit card details to a minor, then they’re still at the stage when they’re amoral enough to use those details to unbox a virtual cardboard enclosure time after time after time until the credit card company finally catches up with you. What remains unsatisfied, however, is your child’s appetite for frequent, unending dopamine hits.
At the end of this part of their curriculum, your child is now an addict without a moral centre who is expected to go out there, play well with others and contribute to society. Again, what could possibly go wrong?
Unboxing sites. They wouldn’t be such a hazard if, as a group, we parents took even a small part of personal responsibility for the upbringing of our children. But until and unless we do, I predict we’ll be seeing either many more families tossed out on the street in headline-grabbing news articles or trying to explain the irrational actions of their children in headline-grabbing news articles, looking with fear and trembling at the cameras, wondering where it all went so wrong.
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