China’s toy video hosts keep lonely children company ... by posting film of themselves playing with toys
With 23 million active web users under 10 in China, the toy video business is booming as youngsters tune in to their favourite hosts playing with toys on dedicated channels via platforms such as Tencent Video, iQiyi and Youku
Aimolier places a thumb-sized Ms Strawberry on a tiny stool. She finishes decorating the toy’s bedroom with a miniature perfume bottle. “This is Ms Strawberry’s room,” she tells her viewers, before introducing Mr Durian, Mr Pineapple and Mr Pear.
Aimolier (a pseudonym) is one of many popular video hosts in China catering to a rapidly growing audience of young children. The broadcasts, in which hosts simply play with toys, have quietly become some of the most viewed content on the internet, with observers attributing their popularity to negligence on the part of parents and schools, leaving children to seek attention and intimacy online.
Two of the 10 most viewed online channels in China are dedicated to toy videos, each of which has generated more than two billion views, according to Newrank.cn, a website that tracks online data.
There are 15 such channels that have each accumulated more than 100 million views. On average, they continue to accrue about three per cent more followers every week.
Their popularity comes as more children gain access to the internet through mobile devices, accessing video platforms such as Tencent Video, iQiyi and Youku. According to data from China Internet Network Information Centre, there are as many as 23 million active web users under the age of 10 in China – equal to the population of Taiwan. The centre says there was an 18.5 per cent increase in the number of active web users younger than 10 last year. Among the country’s 731 million web users, the age group accounted for about 3.2 per cent.
Experts and content producers say factors such as dull schooling, workaholic parents, limited after-school resources and the government’s new two-child policy are making China fertile soil for videos aimed at children.
Liu Chun, a producer at Tencent Video, says his company has signed contracts with more than 100 toy video producers in the past two years, to develop more online content for children.
“We officially signed our first content provider in July 2015,” Liu says. “But the trend really took off around March last year as we started to sign up more people.
“Toys videos now account for a large portion of the videos being produced. The entire category of educational videos is growing,” he says.
The phenomenon is not China-specific. Two of the 10 most viewed channels on YouTube are toy videos, each having racked up a billion views.
Aimolier, whose channel has had about 150 million views, started producing amateur videos featuring Japanese toys in August 2015, after discovering that similar videos were highly popular on YouTube.
Her channel quickly amassed a huge number of followers after the release of her first few videos, enabling her to sign her first contract with a video platform only a month later.
In July last year, she quit her job as a Chinese medicine practitioner in Shanghai to produce videos full time. Working independently, she publishes about two videos a week and does a live-streaming session every weekend.
Aimolier says it is crucial that hosts develop their own style because competition in the field is fierce. She differentiates herself by specialising in videos about miniatures and playing house.
“Toys are very advanced nowadays. Some come with small packets of powder, and allow children to use miniature moulds and kitchenware to make very simple food,” she says. “Cooking with these miniature moulds is mostly what I do in my videos.”
She says the reason there is so much demand for such content is that Chinese children are lonely.
“In China, parents in the first- and second-tier cities are often busy working. Parents from third- and fourth-tier cities have to leave town and work in the top-tier cities,” she says.
“Many of my viewers who are schoolchildren say they are lonely because their parents are not at home,” she says. “They say, during my live stream, ‘I have nothing to do after finishing my homework. So I am here to watch your videos’.”
Aimolier says many of her followers see her as an idol. They range from kindergarteners to middle-schoolers, and about 80 per cent are girls. Most of her viewers are in China’s eastern coastal provinces, including Guangdong, Fujian and Zhejiang.
Ding Li, an education expert at the state-backed Intel Future Education Project, says dull, conventional schooling has driven demand from children for online content.
“Chinese education is a closed-loop system, which means everything within the system is standardised from top to bottom. It seeks consistency,” he says. “Therefore, students are tuning into these video channels in search of something with more novelty value.”
Students are not getting enough one-on-one attention in school because of large class sizes, he adds. So they also go online in search of intimacy.
There are also other community and parental factors driving children to the internet, says Ding, who thinks there’s an unhealthy level of interest.
“First, there are limited community resources for children. Secondly, many parents, after weighing up the safety risks, are disinclined to leave their kids in public facilities.”
Ma Biao, a director at Yangzheng Xishan School Of Shunde in Guangdong, is worried children are being unduly influenced by internet hosts.
“Students are starting to pick up very obsequious speech patterns. They start calling each other ‘Master’ and ‘Big Brother’,” he says.
“Some children think they don’t have to study hard to make a living, that they can simply rely on their appearance and profit by making short videos at home.”
Ma says his school bans students from viewing such online videos on campus. “Children are not disciplined to resist temptation. The way things are currently with regards to online videos, I think the harm [of letting children view them] outweighs the benefits.”
Ding is concerned with the potential for video hosts to mislead impressionable viewers with erroneous information, and warns that they could have an irreversible impact on children’s development.
“There’s a lot of fake news in these materials, be it false advertising or whatever,” he says. He adds that government regulation is being drafted to address such concerns.
Still, he says online educational videos will eventually become acceptable because of the shortage of education resources in China.
On YouTube, Fun Toys Collector Disney Toys Review and Ryan Toys Review are two of the 10 most viewed channels, and generate millions of dollars in earnings a year, according to SocialBlade, a YouTube analytics blog.
Such financial success for hosts in China is still a long way off, though. Their incomes come almost entirely from splitting advertisement profits with the platforms.
A channel called The Magical Toy World of Big Bunny Two, which ranks as China’s fourth most watched toy video channel – with 1.1 billion total views and 900,000 subscribers – is managed by a professional video team that formerly produced documentaries for China Central Television.
Guo Duan, the team’s producer, says the uncertainties of working in traditional media prompted him to start his own venture. His six-person team now publishes about 50 videos a month.
Although Guo declined to reveal how much revenue his company makes, or from where it’s derived, he says large studios like his are just about breaking even. However, successful individual hosts can make “a few tens of thousand [yuan] a month”, he says.
Aimolier says her income is “about what a white-collar, middle-class worker could make in China’s top tier cities”.
“Knowing how to cash in on the high volume of traffic is an issue everyone faces,” Guo says. He says that because the market for toy sales online remains immature, it is difficult to partner with manufacturers.
One channel, however, called Snoring Doctor, has developed an app that allows users to buy toys as they watch videos.
Guo remains optimistic. His company aims to turn the main animated character of his show, White White Warrior, into profitable intellectual property.
“By having an animated character to host our shows [as opposed to a human], we have endless possibilities to generate revenue,” he says. “We can make movies, sell merchandise. Eighty-five per cent of content producers are individual producers. As a professional team we have an advantage.”