The bizarre phenomenon of vacation surprise videos

Parents have long surprised their kids with a family vacation.

However, the practice of parents recording their kids’ reactions – and then sharing them online – is a unique phenomenon of the social media age.

In the days after Christmas, you may have seen some of these videos on your social media feeds. In fact, a YouTube search for “surprise trip for kids” yields millions of videos.

But for every excited kid, there’s one who’s crying, screaming or simply perplexed.

[embedded content] Kids react with skepticism upon learning they’ll be going to Disneyland.
As a consumer sociologist, I study how technology provides new ways to meet people’s needs, and how families navigate relationships through social media.

In a recent study, I analyzed 139 surprise vacation reveal videos on YouTube.

I wanted to know how kids tend to react, why they might react differently than expected, and why parents might feel compelled to post these reactions online for the world to see.

A parental performance

There seems to be a growing realization that today’s “must-have” toy will be tomorrow’s yard sale markdown.

Research has shown that more people are buying gifts that give others the opportunity to experience something new. Instead of getting their kids dolls or video games, parents might instead give them tickets to a concert or season passes to a theme park.

Family vacation gifts can both create quality family time and give kids the opportunity to experience something new.

All of this is well and good.

But how to explain the compulsion to record and share these surprises?

Surprise family vacation videos are a form of “sharenting,” a term coined to describe the way some parents share the day-to-day details of their children’s lives on social media.

But they evoke clips of gender reveals, in which parents-to-be gather friends and family to announce the sex of their future child, often using gimmicks like cutting into a cake or setting off a smoke bomb colored pink or blue to indicate the gender.

They also bring to mind videos of soldier homecomings, during which active duty soldiers return from deployment to surprise their loved ones. And they mimic the phenomenon of unboxing videos, in which consumers record their own commentary as they open, unpack and test new products, from Apple iPhones to live reptiles.

Neuroscience might tell us why these clips are so attractive to social media users: Positive surprises trigger pleasure centers in the human brain. We both crave the unexpected and feel compelled to surprise others in positive ways.