My little boy wakes early this morning. He rubs his tired blue eyes, looks around and smiles at me. Then he crawls across the bed into my waiting arms. He puts his mouth to my ear and whispers.
‘Daddy, can you put Ryan on?’
It’s a vague request but one that I, and every other parent in the developed world will instantly recognise. It’s time for the most jarring five words in the English language.
‘Welcomes to Ryan’s Toy Review!’ (that’s not a typo, that’s really the way he says it).
First, for the uninitiated, some background. Ryan is a cute little American boy who launched his own YouTube channel in 2015 (presumably with some help). The premise is simple – the videos show him playing with an array of toys. Sounds annoying but harmless? Well, people said that about Donald Trump once. According to Wikipedia Ryan is now earning close to $1m dollars a month and has been viewed more than 23 billion times. His Ryan’s World brand has seven spin-off channels and he features in his own cartoon and now even has his own toy range (there’s a special place in hell reserved for Combo Panda).
A review from Ryan can make or break the prospects of a corporation’s new game, figure or gadget.
Where once he just played with toys now kids can watch him eat, exercise or provide commentary on video games. Most details of his daily life are now broadcast. Ryan has the third most viewed You Tube channel of all time. He is seven-years-old.
As his videos started to become insanely successful, Ryan’s mother and father quickly started to make regular appearances, throwing themselves into zany tasks while wearing ‘you can’t judge us, we’re milliionaires because of this!’ expressions on their faces. Apparently mum has quit her job as a chemistry teacher and actually tries to convince that she’s having fun. Dad however, lumbers around firing water pistols while looking as happy as a sea-lion that’s been told there’s no such thing as tuna flavoured ice-cream.
As a parent I’m tolerant of most things which exist in the juvenile world. Ryan, it has to be remembered, despite his ubiquitous profile, is still just a little boy. But, I must confess, the naked, untrammelled commercialisation of the brand makes me squeamish. My son watches it for entertainment, but there is always something for sale and the patter is never subtle. That’s the world we live in. It’s difficult to put the cork back on the bottle of rampant capitalism and possibly pointless to complain about it.
Buy I can’t deny Ryan’s success. His videos are one of the few things that my son will give his entire, undivided attention towards. We had a fight this morning which ended with him in tears because I wouldn’t let him take the iPad into the bathroom so he could watch Ryan while sitting on the toilet. Rather than go without, he eventually decided he didn’t need the toilet anymore.
Perhaps that’s the reason for the success of the You Tube generation. They realised quicker than others that young minds are just as happy to watch someone else take part in an activity than to do it themselves. Outsource it all.
I’ve forced myself to watch a few Ryan videos. They’re not well made and possess no wit or compelling narrative. Watching Ryan and his father playing a video game together while giggling conspiratorially is an experience I find utterly inane and excruciating. I imagine anyone watching me interact with my own son would express the same sentiments.
But it doesn’t matter what I think. Ryan’s Toy Review has a hold over my son.
So now I decide to do something different. Rather than judging harshly through my adult eyes, I should try to understand through his. I cuddle alongside my son as his eyes bore a hole in the little iPad screen. I put my arm around him and try to watch.
‘Why buddy,’ I begin, ‘do you like Ryan so much?’
At first he doesn’t react. I’m not sure he’s heard me. I try again.
‘Hey buddy, I was just wondering if you could tell me why you like Ryan so much.’
This time he fires a severe glance in my direction, eyes burning with indignation.
‘Shush daddy! Can’t you see I’m watching this?’