Over the years, the sector of YouTube dedicated to children’s entertainment has become notorious for its deep well of barely filtered trash. The lack of sufficient algorithmic moderation has been shown to be actually harmful in recent years: in 2017, The New York Times published a lengthy piece exploring the dark side of children’s YouTube, one that shed light on a growing trove of graphic videos that had been slipping past YouTube’s Kids app filter.
Unbeknownst to some parents, their kids had been watching videos of Spider-Man peeing on Frozen’s Elsa, or the Paw Patrol team visiting a strip club, or Mickey Mouse getting run over and bleeding out in the street. While YouTube claims these videos rarely beat their algorithm and have since vowed to do better, it’s clear that with a little finessing, anything resembling a video for children, however weird or uncanny, can be labeled by the platform’s algorithms as a video for children.
Sometimes, these videos get through simply because creators aren’t even trying to be disturbing — their creations are so smoothly wedged in the uncanny valley that an algorithm couldn’t possibly grasp just how hellish they are. Take, for example, the nonsensical modern nursery rhyme that has dominated the memescape this past week, colloquially and collectively referred to as the “Johny, Johny” or “Yes Papa” videos.
As a childless aunt to ten nieces and nephews, I’m intimately familiar with this hellscape. If babysitting has taught me anything, it’s that adults can only spend so much time with kids without screens until a break is needed; even the most uptight caregivers will usually succumb to throwing a child an iPad and letting them watch whatever it is kids watch. For my charges, it’ll usually be Paw Patrol compilation videos, but sometimes it gets weird. Sometimes, I’ll look up from my own screen and find them watching a clip of a grown-ass man playing with Thomas the Tank Engine toys.
At that point, I make them change the video. There’s nothing inherently wrong with what they’re watching, so they don’t understand why I am telling them to turn it off. I can’t explain to them why. It’s not violent, there’s no swearing, and it’s definitely made for their age group. Yet something in my heart tells me it’s just not right. It makes me uneasy: nothing about what’s happening makes sense, and there’s no actual value to it. So I end up just telling them to watch Arthur or whatever instead, and go back to my Instagram stalking.
But “Johny Johny” videos are the one genre in the weird children’s YouTube entertainment constellation that continues to haunt me. The children’s entertainment channel Loo Loo Kids posted the original video back in 2016, a clip set to a sickening, meaningless song with the tune of “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” that features a skateboarding baby who keeps lying to his elderly father about eating sugar cubes. He is caught when his father, or “Papa,” demands he open his mouth, revealing he has, in fact, been eating sugar. They both laugh about it and Johny scams Papa several more times. Johny wins in the end. The video now boasts over 1.1 billion views.
Like their more insidious counterparts, the makers of the “Johny, Johny” videos know full well that kids will watch literally anything with a catchy tune and bright colors, but unlike pregnant Elsa’s golden shower, there’s technically nothing inappropriate or wrong about the videos. Falling somewhere between the explicitly disturbing algorithm-evaders and adults playing with Thomas the Tank Engine, “Johny, Johny” is simply the opposite of ASMR for me. Whatever feelings ASMR videos are supposed to give you — the opposite of that. I’m angry, I’m confused, I’m sometimes physically uncomfortable, to the point where my back gets tingly, in a bad way. It’s so far beyond the scope of anything I consumed when I was their age, I’d like to believe this type of absurdist video never existed until now.
For utterly inscrutable reasons, the format stuck with children’s content creators, and hundreds (if not thousands) of “Johny Johny, Yes Papa” knock-offs have been uploaded since. Each video features a child and their family lying to one another as a form of affection. And like game of telephone, each new video seems to lose even more meaning than the one before it, a feat that frankly seems impossible, given the videos are logically impoverished to begin with.
The one constant is that they all follow the same tune and use the same “rhyme” structure, even if the characters’ reasons for telling lies remain a mystery even to god. I’ve tried my best to avoid these since they gained popularity, I’ve never seen my nieces and nephews watch them. For a while, I was been able to forget about them altogether — until Twitter brought them back into my life.
Captioned “I’m losing my fucking mind,” a user-uploaded video (now removed, hilariously, for copyright violations) featuring a type of remix, where nothing is actually happening. The dad is pointing at a baby, Johny, who has presumably been telling lies for an unknown reason. It’s maddening and catchy, I watched it several times. Then a second even more messed up video showed up on my timeline. I was speechless.
This time, “Papa” returns home from a game of badminton. In the entryway are his two children, a baby resembling the original Johny, and Refrigerator, who I assume is also his child (?) because it calls the man Papa (??). Refrigerator — a pink fridge with eyes, eyebrows, a mouth, arms, wheels, and no gender, a creature somewhere between a Beauty and the Beast character and a toy in Sid from Toy Story’s nightmare menagerie —Refrigerator and Johny are bouncing a ball back and forth.
“Refrigerator, Refrigerator,” Papa sings, rushing to fit the word into the song’s simple rhythm and tapping the badminton racket menacingly in his palm, “Do you have water?” Refrigerator, of course, responds, “No, Papa.” Papa accuses Refrigerator of lying, orders it to open its door. Just kidding! Refrigerator has water, which Papa downs. They laugh about it. The same thing happens when Mommy asks Refrigerator for spices.
We see this happen almost exactly the same way in another video, set at a family barbecue in which Mommy and (presumably) Grandma roast three and a half chickens on spits, squirting an entire bottle of ketchup from Refrigerator on them.
Every single member of this godforsaken family wants something from Refrigerator. Even the kids from the neighborhood want something from Refrigerator. And they all know how to get what they want from it. Ask, wait for Refrigerator to lie, call Refrigerator out for lying, then laugh about it. It seemed invasive enough in the original “Johny, Johny” videos when adults ordered children to open their mouths; now, asking Refrigerator to open its door and hand over its innards somehow feels borderline sadistic.
It’s unclear how Billion Surprise Toys — the children’s entertainment group based in Dubai that created the Refrigerator version in addition to many more equally horrible iterations — warped (or shall we say, “innovated”) the genre to this point of sheer millennial-grade neo-dadaism, but somehow this is where “Johny, Johny” has ended up: a magical world full of enslaved refrigerator children and giant, sentient, shirtless ice cream cones that feed other ice cream cones to the children of the neighborhood.
The Billion Surprise Toys YouTube channel has over 16 million subscribers and each video easily racks up hundreds of millions of views. The company is presumably making bank on these shoddily animated nursery rhyme videos that have no plot and teach children no lessons. Their website states that their mission is to “make screen-time count by delivering the right content, to the right child” and “match fun, educational videos to your child’s unique interests.” They also claim to increase your child’s cognitive and comprehensive skills, and that “these super fun kids videos introduce your kids new friend [sic] like Johny, Ice cream man, Gumball man etc.”
Instead, they have tapped into something dark and upsetting. I don’t think all children’s entertainment should be teaching a lesson or provide educational value, but it kills me to know that kids’ programming this meaningless and nonsensical could have ever gotten this popular. Does it have more meaning than Teletubbies? Probably not, but at least there was some artistic value to Teletubbies, whatever it was. At least Teletubbies taught kids how to rock a purse and tutu Tinky Winky-style.
But when I look deeper into my discomfort, I realize that maybe most of this stems from my own guilt. Screen time is a relatively new concern when it comes to child-rearing, and relying on YouTube and Netflix as a caregiver feels like a type of failure. Admitting I can’t stand to be interacting with children anymore and need a break is to feel inadequately maternal towards my siblings’ children. And knowing people like me will use something that clearly required very little effort to create in order to get kids like them to sit down means something maybe a bit more sinister than I’m willing to explore.
Maybe people like me are responsible for Refrigerator being forced to open their door. Creators today know we’re desperate to escape children, desperate enough to make a deal with the content devil — it was only a matter of time before there was so much content that some of it was bound to get weird.