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How Ryan Kaji Became the Most Popular 10-Year-Old in the World

Ryan Kaji’s human years are 10. In YouTube views, he’s 48,597,844,873. If, in our digital age, a person’s life can be measured by their online footprint, Ryan’s is the size of a brachiosaur’s, which, as a lot of Ryan’s fans know, is gargantuan. Another way of putting it is that even if every one of Ryan’s YouTube views were just 30 seconds, he has been watched 4,500 times longer than he has been alive.

There’s a sacred text that talks about an era of peace and harmony, where lions lie down with lambs. But the best part is that it is all controlled by a child. We live in an age when children do indeed control a large portion of the Internet, except for that part about harmony and peace. Ryan, who has nine YouTube channels, has been the most popular YouTube star for three consecutive years. According to, his revenue for the year was $17 million. Forbes,It was estimated that it cost $30 million. The bulk of his income came from his vast merchandise empire. He (or his parents), has licensed his name on 1,600 products across 30 countries. These include Skechers and Roblox pajamas, Roblox, bedding as well as Skechers, Skechers, Pajamas, Roblox, bed linens, shoes, socks, clothing, footwear, toiletries, toothbrushes, furniture, toothpaste, and toys.

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Ryan also has a slew of YouTube videos. He is the Emmy-nominated Nick Jr. Ryan’s Mystery PlaydateAmazon Kids+ and ). (Super Spy Ryan)His own streaming channel. His animated superhero alter ego, Red Titan, will appear for the second time as a Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon. “Ryan is bar none the crown prince of YouTube,” says Quynh Mai, founder of Moving Image & Content, a creative agency for digital content. He is not represented by her.

Yuki Iwamura—Sputnik/APThis Thanksgiving, the Red Titan balloon will be a part of its second parade

 

Were we able to get to the point that a person could be the keystone of an empire’s media network without ever having his armpit hair? Why is this child making the biggest cash out of all the YouTubers? Part of the answer is that this is no ordinary child, but another part is that Ryan’s rise speaks volumes about the way entertainment, business, technology and family life have changed in the past decade.

Ryan’s prominence, and the existence of the genre of human known as “kidfluencer,” is a source of consternation to many parents, authorities and child-development experts. Young children make up four of the ten most subscribed YouTube channels in the United States. Ryan’s activities and those of his YouTube friends may be curtailed by legislation that was introduced to the Senate. However, Ryan’s rise to the top has demonstrated how fundamentally childhood was and is being reshaped. It may now be too late for the Jack back in the Box.


There is one thing you can be sure of: EverybodyReckon. on is that much of Ryan’s fame was a result of timing. He was about 3½ in 2015 when he asked his mom Loann Guan—the family changed its name to Kaji to preserve some anonymity as they got famous—if he could be on YouTube like other kids. Loann was 37 years old and a spring break science teacher who wanted to find kid-friendly activities. Shion, her husband, was a YouTuber in college. She had an understanding of how YouTube worked and the format.

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Moreover, technology changes made online video easier for kids. “It was like a perfect storm when Ryan came in,” says Mai. People were shifting away from tablets because laptop prices had fallen enough. YouTube Kids had been launched. “Parents gave their iPads to their children as entertainment devices, and that made it so easy for kids to navigate the Internet,” she says. Parents often felt overwhelmed by the cost of child care and wanted to make sure their kids were happy. “When young children see lots of colors and sounds and movement on a screen, it’s almost like a mobile above the crib,” says Dr. Jenny Radesky, a developmental behavioral pediatrician at the University of Michigan. “They calm down. They are focused. Studies have shown that it often leads to less body movement.”

Also, the “creator economy” experienced a period of growth in 2015 and beyond. With the advance of digital ad technology, advertisers realized they could get more traction from microtargeting followers of a regular person—an influencer—than from a celebrity. The unboxers were a group of people who opened their shoes, makeup or toys to show how popular they were when the Kajis started.

So that’s what Loann and Ryan did. Ironically, Ryan did not like toys at all as a child. He only liked one remote-control car that his father said he could control by six months. Ryan received toys from every family member. When the unboxing trend spun off into the Giant Egg trend, Loann hid those cars in a papier-mâché egg she’d made. The resulting video, “GIANT Lightning McQueen Egg Surprise with 100+ Disney Cars Toys,” shot Ryan’s ToysReview, as the channel was then called, into the stratosphere. “That one video became his most popular video on our channel for the next two years,” says Shion. This video currently has more that a billion hits.

They were initially alarmed by the strange comments that appeared below the video. “It was all gibberish,” says Shion. Ryan started typing random letters under videos. Shion then realized there were other children doing it too. Many of the children may not speak English. “We noticed a huge percentage of the viewership coming from Asia,” says Shion. Ryan’s channel had launched just as YouTube was spreading to Asia, and videos like Ryan’s filled a void that TV had overlooked. Shion was born Japan and Loann Vietnam. “For a lot of minorities,” says Mai, “YouTube was the place where you saw people like you.”

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Ryan’s ToysReview quickly became one of YouTube’s most popular channels. In 2016, both of their parents had left jobs and started making videos. Shion, a Cornell-educated structural engineering engineer, saw the potential danger in having Ryan (just 5) carry most of the show’s weight. He beefed up the production team to avoid burnout and had animators create characters based on Ryan’s personality for more content. Shion, Loann and their toys and games can be seen in these videos.

It is possible for one family to create so much intellectual property without being harmed, but this place isn’t the USA circa 2017. Chris Williams saw Ryan and was intrigued by him as an ex-executive at Disney and Maker Studios who had witnessed media habits shift in real time. “I saw linear television’s ratings fall off a cliff,” he says. “I saw kids and family audiences flocking to YouTube.” His experience at Disney had also taught him about the power of building a franchise. “There are stars, characters and intellectual property on YouTube that have bigger audiences than the entire Disney Channel network. Why are we not thinking about them in the same way?” In 2017, he started Pocketwatch to do licensing deals with YouTube stars, and the Kajis, who had formed their own production company, Sunlight Entertainment, were among its first partners.

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It was just the right time. The content directed to children was not just noticed by merchandisers. Parents, child-development experts, media watchdogs and eventually legislators did too, and many didn’t love what they saw. Videos of children playing with their toys inappropriately were posted on YouTube. YouTube showed some families that fell apart. Other people seemed to have a bad attitude towards children in an effort to attract clicks.

Advertisers were forced to retract. YouTube removed comment sections and kept advertisements off of some videos. It wasn’t enough. In 2019, YouTube and its parent company Google paid $170 million to settle allegations by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and the New York State attorney general that it collected data about minors and violated the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act. YouTube demanded creators specify whether the videos they created were intended for kids by 2020 and then stopped showing personalized ads to them. A lot of kid-centric channels saw their revenues drop. However, Kajis continued to thrive thanks to their merch sales. Williams says the franchise is his company’s biggest earner.


Reforms might be possible You can find it hereThe decrease in the problem of advertising to children, but they did nothing to change the thorny fact that watching endless hours of a child opening toys is of dubious—at best—educational or social-development value. There’s not much definitive research on what that kind of media diet does to a developing brain, but the small amount out there is dismaying. A study by the University of Colorado Boulder found that 78% of parents said their children watched unboxing videos regularly. Nearly 17% estimated it to be between 3 and 9 hours per week. “The more time a child spends watching unboxing videos,” says Harsha Gangadharbatla, an associate professor of advertising, who presented the paper at a journalism conference in 2019, “the more likely they are to ask for things and throw tantrums if the parents weren’t purchasing those things.”

According to studies, children develop para-social relationships and friendships with their media icons. “They’re dealing with a developing brain that is figuring out the world,” says Dr. Michael Rich, a pediatrician and the director of the Boston Children’s Hospital’s Digital Wellness Lab. “And if one of the very powerful inputs into that developing brain is ‘Look at how happy Ryan is with his toy!’ of course they’re going to say, ‘I want that.’”

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Just before YouTube and Google paid the fine, the nonprofit Truth in Advertising (TINA) filed a complaint with the FTC against the Kajis—who then changed the name of their channel from Ryan’s ToyReview to Ryan’s World. The group had found that Ryan played with toys that would appeal to kids 5 years of age or younger in 90% of the channel’s 200 most popular videos. TINA claimed sponsored videos had not been clearly delineated enough. “Sometimes, they weren’t adequately disclosing such that an adult would know, and other times, it’s just the fact that this vulnerable population of toddlers cannot differentiate between organic content and ads,” says Bonnie Patten, TINA’s executive director. (The FTC won’t discuss pending investigations.

Ryan’s family made merchandising deals early and often, with 1,600 products to date
Richard Drew—APRyan’s family made merchandising deals early and often, with 1,600 products to date

Williams claims that the Kaji family is unfairly targeted because they are the most popular target. Williams points out they are now focusing on educational content. He mentions that there is more scientific experiments, and even travel videos. He is also open to more regulation and research. “I worry about the effects of all of it. Not just what we see on YouTube and other platforms, but movies and TV,” he says. “Nobody wants to do the work around researching this stuff. They just want to make proclamations: ‘Hey, it’s different from what I grew up on. It must be bad.’”

The Kajis maintain that they “follow the guidelines” for labeling their content, but, says Loann, “if I could do it over, I would try to incorporate more of the educational component right from the get-go.” A legal team screens their videos, but they do not have a child-development expert on staff.

The best solution is to remove the unboxing videos from your channels and not put up any new ones. Sunlight Entertainment has 25 videos released each week across all its channels. But surveys show that in the U.S., “the No. 1 thing for our channel is that they still want Ryan playing with toys,” says Shion. In August, however, YouTube announced that it would remove “overly commercial content” from the YouTube Kids app and mark sponsored videos more clearly. As Congress started to look closely at social media companies on September 30, Democratic Senators Edward Markey from Massachusetts and Richard Blumenthal, Connecticut, reintroduced KIDS Act. It would make YouTube stop recommending videos that are not appropriate for children. YouTube refused to respond to TIME’s specific questions, but noted a series of policies that were developed in collaboration with child-development specialists to ensure young viewers are safe.

Pandora is now done with her unboxing. Ryan’s branded toys are everywhere. And he’s not alone. There’s a new crop of stars coming, on Tik Tok, Instagram and YouTube. Vlad, aged 8, and Niki (aged 6), Russian-born brothers from Russia, launched their first dolls in June. Natya, a 7-year-old Russian Floridian, also launches her dolls November 15. They don’t have to sell toys anymore; instead, they can become the dolls.


Every discerning viewer that watches Ryan’s videos notices within a minute that they don’t offer much in the way of entertainment. It’s amateurish. There’s no narrative arc. This intentional. The Kajis are not artists; they’re parents. According to them, their son was interested in making videos and they started because he liked it. “We don’t really do multiple takes,” says Loann. “What I get from him, that’s what I’m going to use.”

The DIY nature of the videos also mimics, they hope, what it’s like to go on a playdate. “We don’t want the viewers to watch our videos one after the other,” says Shion. “What we ideally want is kids to watch our video and then that inspires them to have an idea for what they want to do and they put down their iPad.” At the onset of the pandemic, they put up several videos of Ryan doing homework, so kids could feel like they were studying with a friend.

Ryan-themed products generated about $250 million in retail sales in 2020, according to Pocketwatch
Brendan George Ko at TIMEPocketwatch estimates that Ryan-themed products sold about $250 million in retail sales for 2020.

It’s difficult to ascertain if kids do indeed go play after watching the videos. The fact that some Ryan’s World videos are hours long suggests that a certain amount of sedentariness is allowed, if not encouraged. They are hated by many parents. Many of their videos have one star reviews on Common Sense Media. It was Ryan’s World that caused Mike Lutringer, in Houston, to swear off YouTube Kids forever. When his second daughter was born and he and his wife needed to attend to her, he’d put on an educational Ryan video for his older child. “But very rapidly it’ll transition over to marketing and sales and reviews,” he says. “You can see how they’ve designed it to really capture the attention of the child.”

Dylana Carlson from Galesburg in Ill. says her children watched Ryan and another childfluencer during the pandemic. Then they would try to mimic their behavior. Occasionally they’d ask for a playdate with their Internet friend. “I think that they assume that they can just go meet these kids,” she says. “I have thought about this stuff, like, Is that depressing? Is that strange? Corporations pay for a Spider-Man costumed to come into the grocery shop. How is this different?” Quynh Mai, the marketer, thinks this is one of the secrets of Ryan’s success. “These kids, I think, are really lonely,” she says. “Ryan provides the emotional connection.”


Online friends Go! RyanHe is an exemplary Hallmark-level cherub. His enthusiasm seems to be endless for all toys, rooms and situations he comes across. Interviews show that he is enthusiastic and cheerful, but a little too self-critical for his age. He is passionate about math and school! He enjoys swimming, playing soccer, and doing taekwon do. But, his favorite activity is gymnastics. He hates when he can’t find his lunch box! Super speed would be his superpower! When he grows up, he wants to be a “game developer or a comedian who is a YouTuber who makes funny videos!”

Loann taught the children at home during the pandemic. When the Kajis checked Ryan for any deficiencies, they discovered that he was ahead of his peers in several classes. They moved to Hawaii in order to find a school that is more challenging than the one he attended in Houston. Interestingly, they also felt that the children were too dependent on their screens. Ryan initially found it exhausting that they took more walks in Hawaii. He’s also learning piano and Japanese, but he’s not crazy about either.

The Kaji family—Loann, Emma, Shion, Ryan and Kate—moved to Hawaii during the pandemic, partly to get the kids off their screens
Bea Oyster for TIMEThe Kaji family—Loann, Emma, Shion, Ryan and Kate—moved to Hawaii during the pandemic, partly to get the kids off their screens

You can view the Kaji family in two different ways. They have manipulated their kids into living their lives with cameras in order to become rich. They also claim that their children became stars and that it was a stumbling block to them trying to catch up. Ryan’s onscreen ability, they say, is as big a surprise to them as to anyone. Ryan often takes the video in an entirely new direction while filming, and tells editors which effects to apply. “On or off camera he is the exact same way,” says Shion. “He genuinely connects with his viewers.” Lest anyone think that’s pure parental boasting, Loann says Ryan’s 5-year-old twin sisters also love making videos, but “it’s not as natural to them.” (Yes, they already have their own line of toys.)

The journey hasn’t always been a thrill ride. After Ryan became famous in 2003, Loann was sentenced to a month imprisonment for shoplifting. Ryan was only present at one family event in Bentonville. The event attracted thousands of people and stunned them. Ryan has been accused of being their workhorse. Loann refers to an incident that occurred on the set Get together for a playdateRyan injured his ankle. The production adjusted the scenes he’d shoot so he could sit and, after a break, kept filming. Loann agreed with the decision, but adds that “if that happens at home, we would not be filming for the next week or two.” The Kajis also say that while the family will go to L.A. for a spell to shoot his shows, Ryan’s YouTube videos take just a few hours a week. He participates in local sporting clubs, and attends school just like the rest of his peers.

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What most worries Shion are families who try to emulate the Kajis’ success more recklessly. Ryan is the most visible face of childfluencers. Therefore, any YouTube parent not being exemplary may reflect on him. Pocketwatch and YouTube issue manuals on how to be both parent and programmer, and Shion hints that he’s trying to start a working group of YouTube families to set industry standards. He won’t go into details, but says he would like more input from YouTube, especially on how families manage their finances, their kids’ time and fame. The platform takes a substantial cut and minors who make their names on the platform have very few legal protections. The Kajis say a portion of the revenue from the family business goes into trust accounts they’ve established for their children, and they have put all of Ryan’s TV earnings into another trust.

YouTube has more children than Ryan. It seems that his parents are somewhat relieved. “I don’t want YouTube to be his future career,” says Loann. “We really want him to do something else. We’re continuing right now because he’s enjoying doing it.” The question remains: having found the perfect platform for their child, can they persuade him to leave it? Reporting by Simmone Shah, Nik Popli

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