Over the protests of my fellow concerned parents, I want to admit something: I don’t care all that much about screen time, the great child-rearing panic of the 21st century. So many of us have come to believe that if our children spend more than a certain amount of time staring at a screen, whether television, phone or iPad, they will succumb to some capitalist plot to turn them all into little consumption monsters with insatiable appetites for toys, sugar, more screen time. This seems absurd to me, but as the father of a 4-year-old, I have not been immune to screen-time shaming — it upsets me to see my child watching a vapid show like “Paw Patrol” on our iPad. These moments of protest usually come, it should be noted, when I’m sitting beside her, staring at my own phone, scrolling through Twitter.
“This show is dumb,” I’ll sometimes say. She almost always ignores me. Her stony silence then prompts me to try to think of a show that’s not dumb, which is an impossible task — because what kids’ programming isn’t dumb?
For the last two years, her favorite show has been “Octonauts,” about a diverse band of animals who explore the oceans and swamplands in vessels called GUPs. They help whales and eels and flamingos in need. What’s left unsaid, but certainly seems clear enough to me, is that the Octonauts have colonized the Vegimals, a species of squeaking underwater creatures who all resemble one sort of vegetable or another. The Vegimals’ oppression does not register with my daughter, who has watched every “Octonauts” episode multiple times, owns a small fortune in toy GUPs and goes to her preschool dressed in a sweater with Kwaazi, an incorrigible pirate cat, knit across the front. I have not yet talked to her about how the Vegimals are portrayed as infantile, loyal beings who love to bake kelp cakes all day, but I plan on doing so soon.
What effect do all these television shows have on the developing brain of a 4-year-old? I don’t honestly know, but I try not to worry too much about it. Life is long and full of different stimuli. I spent most of my preteen years reading horny fantasy books by Piers Anthony and the science fiction of L. Ron Hubbard. The “good” books I read mostly involved warrior mice who were probably also colonialists. I’m fine now. A wary ambivalence seems like the most healthful way to go.
There is one type of video I refuse to let my daughter watch: toy videos. Parents with kids of a certain age will certainly know what I’m talking about here, but for the rest, a toy video is an internet genre, usually found on YouTube, that features someone playing with another plastic monstrosity, often one with tie-ins to “Paw Patrol.” The genre has spawned many toy-video variants: Some feature adults; others, kids. Some have even been deliberately packaged to hide their true content from concerned, but perhaps less than vigilant, parents.
On occasion, especially on long drives, I’ll hand my daughter the iPad. She watches “Peppa Pig,” which I, of course, hate — those British pigs with their phallic noses prattling on about nothing. Invariably, after about 20 minutes or so, I’ll look back and see her, still strapped into her car seat, brow furrowed, jabbing at the screen with her finger. Then I’ll hear the same high-pitched nonsense, but in a much worse British accent, and know she has switched from Peppa proper to a video of some adult with Peppa toys who, for God knows what reason, is re-enacting a scene in which Peppa and her brother, George, go jump in muddy puddles or whatever.
“No!” I yell.
My daughter then looks up, annoyed.
There’s no real logic to this, of course. What’s the difference between watching the Anglophone silliness of Peppa, a show that exists only to sell toys, and a video of someone playing with the toys themselves?
Until recently, my daughter and I were somehow able to avoid the king of toy videos: Ryan Kaji. There’s no one way to describe what Kaji, who is now 10 years old, has done across his multiple YouTube channels, cable television shows and live appearances: In one video, he is giving you a tour of the Legoland Hotel; in another, he splashes around in his pool to introduce a science video about tsunamis. But for years, what he has mostly done is play with toys: Thomas the Tank Engine, “Paw Patrol” figures, McDonald’s play kitchens. A new toy and a new video for almost every day of the week, adding up to an avalanche of content that can overwhelm your child’s brain, click after click.
Kaji has been playing with toys on camera since Barack Obama was in the White House. Here are a few of the companies that are now paying him handsomely for his services: Amazon, Walmart, Nickelodeon, Skechers. Ryan also has 10 separate YouTube channels, which together make up “Ryan’s World,” a content behemoth whose branded merchandise took in more than $250 million last year. Even conservative estimates suggest that the Kaji family take exceeds $25 million annually. But we’re a full decade into being stunned by YouTuber incomes, and I’m not sure these numbers should be alarming, or even surprising.
Ryan Kaji and his parents, Loann and Shion, on the set of Nickelodeon’s “Ryan’s Mystery Playdate” last summer.Credit…Ilona Szwarc for The New York Times
Ryan’s parents, Shion and Loann Kaji, met while they were undergraduates at Texas Tech University. Shion, the son of a microchip executive, moved to the United States from Japan when he was in high school and still speaks with a slight accent. Loann’s family escaped Vietnam on a boat and shuttled through refugee camps in Malaysia and Singapore before they made it to the United States; she grew up in Houston wanting to be a teacher. After college, Shion left to get his master’s in engineering at Cornell, but he returned to Texas within a year, after Ryan was born. (He would complete his master’s degree online.) They moved in together and began the uncertain and difficult work of trying to piece a family together.
Which is all to say, these aren’t your stereotypical parents of a child star, who, frustrated with their own crashed Hollywood dreams, put their kid through singing and dancing lessons in the living room of a bungalow in Van Nuys. But neither are they just an adorable couple who stumbled into fame and fortune. They’re much cannier than that.
In his first-ever video, Ryan Kaji, then just 3, squats on the floor of the toy aisle at Target. He looks very cute, doe-eyed with a Beatles mop cut. He’s being filmed by Loann. “Hi, Ryan,” she says brightly.
“Hi, Mommy,” Ryan says.
“What you want today?” Loann asks. “What is your pick of the week?”
Ryan stands up and picks out a “Lego choo-choo train.” He does seem precocious, but not obnoxious — he doesn’t rattle off factorials or sing “Over the Rainbow” or “Tangled Up in Blue” or anything like that. Just a 3-year-old who seems a little advanced for his age, especially when it comes to expressing himself. There’s little that distinguishes this video from the millions of other family videos on YouTube, and Loann herself says she didn’t really expect anything to come from it other than something to share with her son’s grandparents. If you’re being uncharitable, you might note how “pick of the week” seems to suggest a plan for unending content.
Shion saw no issue with it — why would he? — but he worried about the cost of buying toys nonstop for Ryan to play with on YouTube. And so the young couple agreed to allocate $20 a week in production costs, toys included. Loann would film everything on her phone and edit the videos on her laptop.
At the time, Ryan was watching a lot of YouTube shows. His favorites were “EvanTubeHD” and “Hulyan and Maya,” each of which served as inspiration. Children’s content on YouTube tends to be derivative in this way. Once a specific toy or activity becomes popular, copycats emerge, knowing that algorithms will pick up and spread their version of “Slime Time” or what have you. A result is a self-referential world where thousands of children do the exact same thing on thousands of separate channels.
When Ryan was getting started, one of the most popular and copied trends involved a giant papier-mâché egg filled with toys. Loann says Ryan wanted to do a giant-egg video, but this would have broken the weekly budget. Loann improvised. She had a lot of old toys based on the movie “Cars” lying around, which she stuffed into the requisite papier-mâché egg. In the video, Loann wakes Ryan up from a pretend nap. He seems genuinely surprised and begins smacking away at the egg with an inflatable toy. Then he begins pulling some clearly used toys out of the egg and feigning great surprise. The video currently has over a billion views.
The giant egg was Ryan’s breakthrough. His channel’s audience began growing at an explosive rate, which then placed pressure on Loann to keep feeding her son’s new fans. “I was worried,” Shion says. “Every time I looked at other YouTubers, I didn’t see the huge growth that we were seeing over a short period of time.” That growth wasn’t just limited to the United States; Ryan was becoming popular in Asia, as well. “I was concerned about how much we could keep doing this without putting too much pressure on Ryan.”
Virality is mostly luck: A teenager does a dance on TikTok, and suddenly every middle- and high-school kid has seen it, and before you know it, the dancer has 100 million followers and 15 separate sponsorship deals. Some critics will divine great importance from the tiniest of details and build a theory about what the kids really want, but there’s usually nothing outside the brutal logic of algorithms and the insatiable appetites of children.
When Ryan’s egg video went viral, Loann saw an opportunity to make some extra income, though she didn’t know all that much about monetizing videos. Their first paycheck from YouTube was for about $150. At the time, Shion was still working as a structural engineer, and while he wanted to help Loann, who had a job as a teacher, someone needed to earn a steady salary.
But after about a year of continued growth and bigger paychecks from YouTube, Shion and Loann both realized that they needed to commit fully to influencer life or risk squandering Ryan’s rare gift. They wanted the core of their channel, at the time called Ryan’s Toys Review, to remain the same — Ryan playing with the toys he liked, from “Cars” and “Thomas & Friends” — but they needed help. So they hired a couple of editors and started a production company, Sunlight Entertainment. Loann, who was pregnant at the time with twin girls — Emma and Katie, who are now 5 years old and appear frequently in Ryan’s videos — finally quit teaching to become a full-time YouTube mom.
Shion held out a little longer, but he, too, eventually left his job to manage his son’s business. “I started to feel like I was the dead weight in the family,” Shion told me. Ryan needed full support from both parents. “So that’s when I realized, OK, we need to kind of step back, and we have to see how we can support Ryan in his branding.”
Shion and Loann noticed that a lot of kid YouTube channels were focused more on the brand of the toy than on the brand of the talent. They were, in plainer terms, just adding “Thomas the Train” to their titles and hoping that other kids who wanted to consume every single video about Thomas the Tank Engine would stumble upon their content. Shion thought this was backward. Ryan, not the toys, should be the brand. Shion was proposing an interesting evolution: Given Ryan’s popularity, why couldn’t he create his own brands, his own characters, his own toys? Why help Thomas when you can create your own universe of characters, diversify your content streams, ramp up merchandising and license your content to some of the biggest platforms in the world? “People are watching Ryan, not the toy he’s showing,” Shion says. “So, oftentimes, we create a new original, animated character that’s inspired by Ryan.”
Today, Ryan’s World includes the separate channels “Combo Panda,” “Ryan’s World Español” and “Gus the Gummy Gator.” Ryan doesn’t put in extensive appearances in all these videos; sometimes he just gives a short introduction. In one recent video, the action starts with Ryan in his backyard holding a rubber ball. He tosses it halfheartedly in the air, watches it bounce and then says that Peck and Combo — two of the cartoon characters in Ryan’s World — are going to teach viewers about gravity. He’s on camera for all of 35 seconds.
Loann and Shion say that cameos like this are their way of limiting the amount of time Ryan needs to be on camera, which is their main concern these days. Still, there’s little doubt that he has spent most of his childhood being captured on video. Many of these appearances are banal; some are of dubious taste, like “Ryan’s First Business-Class Airplane Ride to Japan.” Others are just more videos of a cute kid playing with toys. Right now, as I am typing this, the latest entry in the Ryan’s World feed is an hourlong video in which Ryan is present for a vast majority of the screen time. He gives a few scientific facts about the strength of spiders, plays with some toys and is his usual, charming self, all while wearing a Ryan’s World T-shirt.
In 2017, the Kajis established a partnership with Pocket.watch, a licensing company headed by a former executive from the Walt Disney Company. Pocket.watch handles the Ryan’s World franchise, including the deals with Walmart, Amazon and Skechers. But even as the family enterprise was expanding, Shion says, most viewers at that time still wanted to see Ryan play with familiar toys. So, Ryan continued to do — and generate a great deal of revenue from — what he had always done: picking up a popular toy and playing with it on camera. In 2019, Truth in Advertising, a consumer watchdog group, filed a complaint with the Federal Trade Commission, accusing the Kajis of “deceiving millions of young children” by not adequately disclosing their advertisers. (A spokeswoman for the family said that they “strictly follow all platforms’ terms of service and all existing laws and regulations, including advertising-disclosure requirements.”) The brand, which has continued to profit from sponsored content on its YouTube channels, also makes money from its line of Ryan’s World toys, multiple deals with streaming networks and licensing deals.
Today, Sunshine Entertainment, the production company Shion and Loann created, has 30 employees. And the Kajis have traded Houston for Hawaii. When I asked Loann why they moved, she said, “Well, I always wanted to live in Hawaii, and now that we can afford it, we thought, Why don’t we just do it?”
Last summer, I traveled with my daughter to Simi Valley, Calif., for a taping of the Nickelodeon show “Ryan’s Mystery Playdate,” a half-hour-long, professionally produced recapitulation of many of the motifs from Ryan’s YouTube videos. The night before the shoot, I asked my daughter to watch an old episode of the show on our iPad. She didn’t seem particularly interested at first, but when I moved to turn it off, she slapped my hand away and said she liked Ryan. Which didn’t surprise me — why wouldn’t she like him? But I admit I did feel slightly disappointed. Over the next few days, I had her sample a bit more from the Ryan Kaji media empire: A science lesson in which Ryan and his little twin sisters mix baking soda and vinegar; a game of tag played between Loann and Ryan; and the giant-egg video that started it all. She, of course, liked the egg the best.
The Nickelodeon shoot was at a remote studio lot that had been made up to resemble a boulevard, with long stretches of building facades that somehow evoked historic Boston and the Wild West at the same time. Crew members in masks and plastic face shields were standing around the set, waiting for the talent to arrive. The Kajis’ tight schedule and their desire to spend as much time as possible in Hawaii means that Ryan flies to Los Angeles, films a season’s worth of shows, then heads right back home.
The conceit of “Ryan’s Mystery Playdate” is relatively simple. Ryan, Shion and Loann play a game. Ryan generally wins. Shion usually loses. Loann wins some and loses some, but she mostly hovers as a positive, encouraging presence. At some point, the mystery play date arrives. Today’s two guests were the Pie Ninja, who throws pies, and Major Mess, a burly military man who loves to make messes.
A blast of cheery music sounded, then a round of recorded applause. Ryan emerged from a door wearing a pair of polarized sunglasses. Next came Loann and Shion, dressed in brightly colored jumpsuits, followed by a couple of production assistants who carried water and clipboards. The first contest was a simple memory-based matching game. Whoever missed got a pie in the face from the Pie Ninja. Before shooting started, however, Shion and the director on the set had to negotiate whether Shion would be hit with one or two pies. Shion said he didn’t really have any problem with two pies, which pleased the director.
When the filming started, Ryan kept the scene together as Loann and Shion repeatedly forgot their lines. This, Loann would tell me later, is how nearly all these shoots go. Ryan rarely makes mistakes, nor does his positive attitude waver much. He spends a majority of “Mystery Playdate” with an amazed, gape-mouthed look on his face.
Watching the Kajis coming together as a family to play these games reminded me of a moment from high school, when I was driving around town with a couple of classmates I didn’t know particularly well. One of them, an exemplary student who did things like run for student council, divulged that she and her parents played board games together once a week. This seemed absolutely insane to me, but I didn’t say anything about it, because you never know if your family’s dysfunction is atypical or if everyone else is just lying about their happy lives. I pictured this classmate seated on the floor of a living room, one much bigger than mine, playing Parcheesi with her bookish parents. This image persisted, and for the next year, I felt a great deal of hostility toward her. Today I play games with my daughter almost every night, but I suppose there’s still part of me that thinks about that happy family and still cannot fathom how such things could ever be possible.
Why do children want to watch happy children playing with toys they can’t have? Are they responding to the toys or to the images of a happy family? Are they envisioning a life they already feel may be out of reach? And at what age does aspiration turn into resentment? I imagine my daughter will grow tired of these toy videos when she learns to feel real jealousy, which I suppose is a good reason to hope she just keeps watching them.
And yet there’s something a bit unsatisfying about this explanation. Because if it were true that children just want to watch other children doing the things they most want to do, the most popular videos would show kids watching “Paw Patrol” on an iPad. The Kaji empire and its thousands of imitators, oddly enough, have created perhaps the only world in which children do not stare at screens. It’s a nice dream, I admit, but not to the extent of persuading me to allow my daughter to keep watching videos. The limits we set as parents may be arbitrary, but they are all we’ve got.
Ryan’s life, despite its fictional presentation as a parade of remarkable discoveries that he shares with his enthusiastic parents, may not be all that different from my daughter’s. During the shoot in Simi Valley, after a long stretch of filming in the intense sun, I overheard a crew member say to him, “If you finish this scene, you can play Minecraft.”
Jay Caspian Kang is a staff writer for the magazine and the opinion pages. He is the author of the novel “The Dead Do Not Improve,” and his latest book, “The Loneliest Americans,” was published by Crown in October.