Reducing iPhone screen time with a different approach to YouTube

Discover how I broke free from YouTube's grip on my screen time using the 'Play' app. By managing my subscribed channels and curating a 'watch later' list, I regained control, increased productivity, and bid farewell to endless video recommendations.

I have a problem. Well, in fact, one could argue that I have a lot of problems, and I wouldn’t deny that statement. But one of these problems definitely includes my iPhone screen time, or, in general, my screen time on all devices. For work, I’m usually staring at a screen the whole day. So in theory, it would be nice to spend my time when I’m not working without a screen. But we all know this is never going to happen…

YouTube has historically always been my number one activity on my phone, followed by checking out social media. I like TikTok, but as a long-time YouTube fan who loves to watch content like gaming, travel vlogs, and crime, I have always been used to videos that are longer than 20 minutes, and my brain is not wired properly for consuming multiple short TikTok clips in sequence for more than 5 minutes.

But screen time for YouTube on my iPhone has truly skyrocketed over the past months as my activity on Twitter dropped for obvious reasons. I was hoping to be able to use this time for productive stuff like learning new things, self-development, or doing more writing. Instead, the YouTube algorithm kicked in and served me such good recommendations every single time I opened the app that I seldom closed the app without watching at least one of the recommendations.

Not opening the app was not an option, though. I have a few channels I really like, and I want to know if they release a new video and check if I want to watch it. And yes, you can still subscribe to channels, even if YouTube does everything to push you towards recommended videos because they usually have a better CTR. While there is still a tab for subscribed channels in the app, I can imagine this being moved to a less prominent place in the future. That’s not the topic of this post, though.

I was looking for a way to still be able to keep track of my subscribed channels without having to open the YouTube app and run into the danger of being captivated by a recommended video. It also wouldn’t hurt if this new way offered a more convenient way to manage videos of my subscribed channels because I’m not interested in all of those videos, but mostly only specific ones.

Then, MacStories helped me find Play, an app that exactly suits my needs. And it’s kind of genius in it!

screenshot of the Play app
Screenshots of the Play app

I first had to transfer all the channels I subscribe to on YouTube to Play. Then, it fetched the last 15 videos from each channel. From that point on, it essentially functions as an RSS reader for videos. It polls each channel I’m subscribed to for new videos and displays them in a list. I can then decide whether I want to watch a particular video. If I’m interested and want to watch it later, I can send it to a ‘watch later’ list; otherwise, I can clear the list of new videos.

The ‘watch later’ list (referred to as ‘New’ in the app) displays all the videos I added from the channel subscription list or via the iOS share extension. I have the opportunity to tag videos for easier retrieval later or as a reference, add notes, and, of course, watch the video either in the in-app browser or directly on the YouTube app.

This feature has already saved me a significant amount of screen time and has made me more productive. I no longer find myself falling into YouTube rabbit holes, watching recommended videos for hours. I use the Play app solely to keep track of new videos from channels I’m interested in. Additionally, I’ve turned off watch history on YouTube to eliminate recommended videos altogether. Overall, it has been a massive improvement for me.