TOYLAND

The YouTubers Making Six Figures Off Your Toddlers

Content creators are building channels that take advantage of exhausted parents who offload their kids to digital babysitters.

Photo Illustration by Elizabeth Brockway/The Daily Beast

Ms. Hands (who asks I keep her real name private) uploads a video a day to each of her three channels: Fizzy Toy Show, Fizzy Fun Toys, and ZigZag Toys. Today, she is rescuing Boss Baby and the Smurfs from Gargamel’s Dragon. The toys are carefully organized on a clean living room table, and her palms are stretched out in front of the camera to introduce our crisis. The dragon is threatening to eat Boss Baby and the Smurfs alive. As usual, the only way we can stop him is by opening more toys.

The plot is entirely tertiary—a simple angle to get shiny things in front of five-year olds. So, a plushie Boss Baby gets a pair of Num Nom Lights Mystery Packs (a line of small, scented chibis that retail for $7 a pop at your local Target). Smurfette receives a Hello Kitty Chocolate Surprise Egg (with a Hello Kitty magnet inside), and Ms. Hands squeezes a Thomas the Tank Engine gummy, which she ranks a “10 out of 10” on her homebrew “squish meter.”

The video is 13 minutes long, which is the perfect length to maximize profits from YouTube’s advertisement algorithms. This is the seventh Boss Baby-centric episode she’s released this week, standing shoulder to shoulder alongside previous entries like “Don’t Wake Boss Baby! Trolls Smurf Play and Try Not Wake The Bad Crying Baby,” or “Boss Baby Opens Lots of LOL Surprise Dolls Spit, Cry, or Tinkle.” The customer is always right, and in this particular moment in the spring of 2017, the customers want Boss Baby.

In a sense, Ms. Hands is a professional pantomimer—she plays with toys the way all parents do when they’re desperate to keep a young child sated. But she’s also broadcasting to a one million subscriber count. In a single day, the dragon video has racked up 190,000 views, which is low compared to the 1.7 million views on last week’s “Greedy Grandma Chef Game! Trolls & Boss Baby Try to Get Food and Not Wake Granny!

YouTube is notoriously reticent with concrete revenue specifics for their creators, but the SocialBlade, the touted third-party resource that calculates for YouTube and Twitch channels, estimates that Ms. Hands is making at least six figures a year for her work. “I can’t say how much I’m pulling in,” she says, when I ask. “I can say I’m making more than I did as a school psychologist!”

Ms. Hands, who’s tells me she’s over 30 but declines to give her exact age as some of her fans think she’s a teenager, quit that psychology job after the birth of her son. The long hours drafting cognitive evaluations ate into her off-time, and after five years of miscarriages and failed IVF treatments, she wanted a schedule that would afford her more time with her new family.

I started thinking of other ways to earn money. One day I was watching videos on YouTube to figure out how to highlight my hair. I looked at the views on these videos and it hit me—these women were making pretty good money making these videos.” she says.

“I did some research and saw the top YouTube earners were gamers and toy reviewers. Since I worked with kids, I thought toy reviews was right up my alley. But, I had no toys, no camera and had never edited a movie. I bought some toys, a cheap camcorder and learned iMovie. Slowly, but surely, I started cranking out videos.”

Ms. Hands has made 922 videos since she started Fizzy Toy Show in the November of 2014. In a few months she’ll eclipse one billion total views, undoubtedly solidifying her as one of the true moguls of Toy YouTube.

It’s an industry that happened by total accident. Exhausted parents started off-loading babysitting duties to the family iPad, and those boys and girls represented a pretty lucrative market. By 2015, four of the five most popular channels on YouTube were aimed at kids. A generation of content creators realized that they could build a channel presence that would mine those juvenile clicks all day long.

Right now, it’s Boss Baby; last year it was Moana and Zootopia. It’s similar to the strategies employed by Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network for years—filling up hours of after-school television with garish, hypnotizing reruns. But people like Ms. Hands realized they could have the same success with far less overhead. Fizzy Toy Show is a one woman job. YouTube’s autoplay feature slams all her videos together in a neat, never-ending playlist. Her mortgage is paid by kids in the backseats of mini-vans all over the world.

Last year, The Guardian reported that for the first time, children aged between 5 and 15 were spending more time on the internet than watching TV. In March of 2015, four of the five most popular channels on YouTube were focused squarely on a primary-school audience. However, this genuine enterprise can often look hilarious from the outside.

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One of the most bizarre channels on YouTube is “Webs & Tiaras”—a franchise of nonsensical teleplays orchestrated by a small cadre of adults somewhere in a hyper-saturated Canadian suburb. As the name implies, every video features a man dressed as Spider-Man and a woman dressed as Frozen’s Elsa. The titles are a butt-text of catch-all pop culture references, a SEO booby trap primed to snag any relevant search requests. “Frozen Elsa COTTON CANDY BATH w/ Spiderman Princess Rapunzel Joker Venom Superman Fun in Real Life.

There is no narrative complexity. It is content created as efficiently as possible, specifically targeting the strange, tangential thoughts that pass through a child’s brain. A video featuring a pregnant Elsa under the midwife care of a conniving Joker wouldn’t make it onto Disney Channel, but on YouTube it’s got more than three million views.

There is a long, long history of marketing executives pushing shameless junk on kids, so it seems strange to bellyache about it now. But it’s also never been easier to get in the game. There is no watchdog authority to children’s content on YouTube. All it takes is a camera and a small toy collection. The sector is percolating, and naturally, people who’ve never had any humanitarian interest in children’s entertainment are getting involved.

“If you look at the top toy channels you’ll see the same the content. If it performs well for one big channel you’ll see everyone else try to replicate that success,” says Melissa Hunter, the mommy from the “Mommy and Gracie Show”—one of the first prominent kid-centric channels on the site. “Everybody has quit their job. They bought their big house and drive their fancy car—it then becomes imperative for the channel to continue to perform at that level to support that family’s lifestyle. Because you never know what’s going to catch on or not, I think it’s really hurt the originality and innovation.”

It can often feel that Kid YouTube is founded on the premise that young children lack distinguishing taste. That they cannot tell the difference between an FCC-approved, million-dollar television show and a mom unwrapping action figures on a kitchen counter. It is a cynical, and potentially accurate perspective. It’s a hard thing to argue against when there are reams and reams of highly profitable Boss Baby videos being uploaded everyday.

But the best children’s programming was made by idealists who took their work seriously. Mr. Rogers, Blue’s Clues, Sesame Street—they all believed that kids deserved something thoughtful. They treated the youth’s attention like a crucial responsibility. Toy channels are not evil, but it does feel like that prerogative has been lost.

“I understand both perspectives on it. People have built businesses around making content for kids and they need to make a living. It’s scary,” says Hunter. “I’m not saying it’s bad for kids, but I feel bad for kids because everything they see is now the same.”

To be clear, Ms. Hands works incredibly hard. She shoots a week’s worth of videos all at once, and reserves an entire day to edit late into the night. Her breaks are rare, but she has absolutely no guilt about the monotony of her craft. Ms. Hands makes kids laugh, and in turn she makes a lot of money. Squeezing a Thomas the Tank Engine mini has never been so fulfilling.

“[This] is a passion and a job. As a psychologist, I needed to exercise analytical and problem solving skills. I really enjoy being able delve into the more creative part of my personality,” she says. “I get absolutely amazing comments from kids and parents on YouTube, Facebook and Instagram. Kids are having Fizzy-themed birthday parties! That puts a huge smile on my face and makes me passionate about this job.”