Don’t trust YouTube’s break-reminders

The YouTube app on Android and iOS has an option that will pause video playback and remind you to take periodical breaks from staring at videos from hours on end. These reminders aren’t very reliable, however, and you shouldn’t rely on them for your health.

The web’s economy and the major platforms all run on one scares commodity: people’s attention. Who’d willingly remind people to stop giving their service people’s full and undivided attention? YouTube claims that’s exactly what they’re doing with their new break-reminders.

The new option is found in the YouTube app for Android and iOS since late , and is off by default. You’ve to discover it and enable it on your; choosing how often you want to be reminded to take a break in the setup process.

Every time you get a notification, you’ll be presented with two options. The first option is to dismiss the reminder and resume the video you’re watching (presumably after taking a short break), and the second option is a one-tap shortcut to Settings were you can disable the reminders again.

The reminder system is a good idea for those of us who find themselves having unintentionally spent two hours watching YouTube and are unable to account for the intervening time.

However, there are a bunch of limitations to how and when the reminders will work or not. Depending on how and where you use YouTube, you may never see any reminders even after you’ve opted-in to seeing them. Here is a list of some of the limitations to when and where you’ll see break-reminders.

  • You can only configure break-reminders in the Android and iOS versions of the main YouTube app. Reminders don’t work in the YouTube Gaming app or in the YouTube Go app (only available for Android Go edition phones in developing markets.) The YouTube Gaming app in particular is geared towards hours-long programming and long live streams. It also unavailable on both the mobile and desktop websites.
  • Reminders don’t work while you’re controlling or casting video to a Google Chromecast or a Google Casting compatible device like a TV or gaming console. This would require tigher integration with these playback devices. However, Google could still send a reminder to your phone while you’re watching on another device.
  • Reminders don’t work when you’re watching offline videos (YouTube Premium and YouTube Go) or playing videos in the background (YouTube Premium and YouTube Music.) This might indicate that it requires an internet connection, and that it may still work as long as your device is online.
  • The watch-duration timer is reset if you (or your operating system) close the YouTube app. Whether an app runs in the background or is killed is out of users’ control. Modern operating system close background apps at their own discretion to manage device battery and performance. Switching to a messaging app temporarily and switching back may reset the counter. You won’t know for sure, and that causes friction and the feature will fail to live up to people’s expectations.
  • The watch-duration timer don’t carry on if you switch to watching on another device. Even though YouTube keeps track of every second of every video you watch for revenue-share and engagement tracking purposes, they can’t keep a running tally of your watch time across multiple devices even when you’re signed in with the same account on all of them. Accurate cross-device tracking is apparently only to be used for YouTube’s own purposes.

I don’t believe that anyone who configure YouTube to remind them to take breaks would reasonably expect any of the above situations to cause the reminders to not to be triggered. You’ve to test and discover these for yourself, and by the time you discover them you won’t have much faith in YouTube’s ability or willingness to remind you to stop watching videos on their platform.

For YouTube’s break reminders to work, you’ve to only use the YouTube app on your phone without doing anything else for long periods of times.

I can’t see any strong data privacy or technical restrictions that would warrant any of the above limitations. There’s no reason why YouTube on the web couldn’t store how long you’ve been watching videos this session in your browser. The feature should have been available everywhere.

There’s no reason why my Android phone couldn’t keep a running timer and pause a device using the Google Casting protocol. The pause button is right there on my lock screen at all times! There’s no reason why it wouldn’t work when watching online videos – the timer doesn’t sync with your account, so why couldn’t it also run when watching locally cached videos? —and lastly, loosing session state/resetting the timer when the app is closed is just lazy programming.

Either YouTube engineers took too many breaks to watch videos while testing and developing this feature, or you’ve got to start wondering whether there are ulterior motives at play here. Does YouTube want to interrupt people and potentially discourage them from spending even more time with their product?

The thing is, these reminders are also good for YouTube. These reminders enable YouTube to say to advertisers: “People are actively watching these videos for hours and hours! We prod people every 40 minutes, and they confirm that they’re still watching!” I would have expected that YouTube would have wanted to enabled these reminders by default for all users on all platforms. We might very well see that a few months from now.

Netflix have had a similar system in place for years already where they ask viewers to confirm that they’re still watching after a few hours of streaming. Netflix do this to keep down licensing costs for content when there’s nobody watching the stream anymore.

I recommend you find a dedicated break time reminder app to remind you instead of using the functionality built-in to the YouTube app. There are over 200 break time reminder apps for Android on the Google Play Store. Chances are that one of them will work more reliable than YouTube.