Margot Robbie stars in "Barbie," a movie that has some adults reliving their childhoods by buying "emotional support Barbies."
CNN  — 

The “Barbie” movie is a bona fide cultural moment. Not only has it set box office records and ushered in a massive spike in Barbie sales, it’s also inspired fascinating conversations about childhood and mental health.

Since the movie’s release in July, adults on TikTok and other social media platforms have documented themselves reconnecting with their inner child through little rituals like buying so-called “emotional support Barbies.” (CNN and “Barbie” movie distributor Warner Bros. Pictures share parent company Warner Bros. Discovery.)

Some videos show people carefully roaming toy aisles to pick out dolls that speak to their careers, identities or just their sense of whimsy. They unbox them with care, stroking their hair reverently, and suddenly, they’re kids again.

The comment sections of these posts are an emotional gut punch:

“The way everyone, no matter if you are a child or a grown adult, strokes a Barbie’s hair after unpacking it.”

“I bought my baby daughter her first Barbie. It meant so much for me to get it for her.”

“I bought myself a Barbie too a few days ago, and I think something in me changed forever.”

If that wasn’t moving enough, some younger generations are documenting themselves presenting Barbies and other childhood toys to their parents, who never had them as kids. In one popular TikTok, a daughter surprises her mom with a Dia De Muertos Barbie, and no one comes away dry-eyed.

“I asked my mom a month ago if she ever had a Barbie doll,” the poster wrote. “Now I have a better understanding of her childhood and how regardless she did better than how she grew up. I love you momma.”

The power of play for mental health

Kristin Flora, a professor of psychology at Franklin College in Indiana, said she’s enjoyed seeing how the movie has opened up people’s eyes to the importance of play, even as adults.

“We have quite a bit of research that shows the benefits of play for children. But increasingly, we have scientific evidence that play is beneficial for adults as well, especially in the mental health realm,” she told CNN. “Some of the research suggests that it can help stave off depression. It can help us build a sense of optimism, which is really important when things are uncertain. It can help us decide what disposition to take as we live through unprecedented times.”

Flora said women and girls benefit in unique ways from this ageless sense of play, because it can build confidence and positivity at critical times.

“In my classes, I teach that the confidence level for boys and girls is about equal up until about age 13. And that’s when we start to see confidence really get broken down and disrupted in girls, whereas boys; confidence tends to excel,” she explained. “That suggests that the psychological pressures at that age are really monumental for girls. A sense of play can help buffer against those changes.”

When Cameron Greene, a 29-year-old software engineer from Lanham, Maryland, decided to buy herself her own emotional support Barbie, she had a lot of options: There are plenty of Barbies with varied careers — far more, Greene said, than when she was a child. But Greene opted for something more decadent instead: A mermaid Barbie doll, with a shining rainbow tail.

“I loved dolls as a kid, but you grow up and, especially if your interests aren’t stereotypically ‘female,’ you kind of forget about that world,” she told CNN. Greene thought the idea of an emotional support Barbie was a little silly at first, but she found herself in a Target one weekend and caved.

“I mean, I’m an adult now, right? Which means I have adult money, and if I want to buy a Barbie and brush its hair I can!”

Barbie merchandise is displayed at a Macy's store on July 25, 2023 in Corte Madera, California. Retailers around the world are seeing a surge in sales of Barbie-influenced fashion and accessories as the new movie sets box office records. The Barbie movie brought in $155 million in the first three days of domestic ticket sales.

What play looks like for adults

When adults think of “play,” they often think of juvenile, potentially unseemly activities like running around outside or playing make-believe with a Barbie doll clutched in each hand. While both are completely valid options, new opportunities for more mature fun are springing up all the time. Adult summer camps are a thing, as are classic favorites like rec league sports, communal crafting events and special interest conventions to name just a few.

“There is a real hunger for this,” Flora said. She also pointed out that our idea of “play” often grows with us. So instead of doing the same activities we enjoyed as kids, we find new ways to have fun — like, say, dressing up to go see a movie about the world’s most famous doll.

When Flora saw the “Barbie” movie with her daughter, she says nearly the whole audience was decked out in pink, sparkles and sunglasses, bubbling over with excitement.

Dressing up this way counts as play.

“Through our dress, we can exert that sense of play or playfulness,” she said. “And what was striking for me was that this moment of play cut through age, race and ethnicity, ability status, every identity. It was everyone, together, enjoying this cultural moment.”

Pat Cafaro, a 65-year-old from Sarasota, Florida, saw the movie with her 8-year-old granddaughter, and both of the ladies dressed for the occasion: Cafaro in a pink rhinestone top and her granddaughter in a tutu.

“I probably enjoyed the movie even more than she did,” Cafaro told CNN, laughing. She was pleasantly surprised by the layers of history she saw, with different characters based on real dolls and little in-jokes that only someone who had played with dolls would recognize.

“I’m fairly certain I owned a few of the exact dolls myself,” she said. “You have to understand when I was young, Barbie was still a new thing. And that’s something you don’t forget.”

Cafaro said her prized possession as a girl was a plastic Barbie kitchen set, heavily detailed in shades of pastel.

This kind of nostalgia has its own mental health benefits. Though the actual term comes from the Greek words for “return” and “pain,” fond remembrances of the past can be a comfort and a mood booster. A 2023 study published in the journal “Emotion” found feelings of nostalgia helped lonely people reclaim meaning in their lives.

Perhaps there is a little pain after all, in watching on-screen Barbie come to terms with her humanity, or reflect on the joys and challenges of womanhood. But in a crowded theater, or in a toy aisle armed with “adult money” and a childhood ache to ease, a little pink — and a little play — can make it feel a lot better.