(Credit: Screenshots: Download.com/Tom McNamara)

YouTube announced two interesting features coming to the mobile app today: One for people who lose track of time when watching YouTube, and the other for people who feel overwhelmed by all the notifications that their phone spits at them all day.

In its mid-year update for YouTube content creators, the company says it's added an optional timer to prevent mindless viewing for hours at a time, and "digest notifications" to cluster these messages into one per day. The timer previously existed in the YouTube Kids app, to be used by a parent, but company CEO Susan Wojcicki says, "We have since realized that a timer could also be helpful for adults."

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YouTube and other social platforms have come under increased scrutiny about the methods they use to create user engagement; Facebook's critics like Tristan Harris and Roger McNamee have brought the Center for Human Technology into the forefront of this dialog as they seek to engage the companies in a campaign for "time well spent."

They argue that these social platforms have an influence on society that's largely unregulated and unexamined. One does not need to look further than the Cambridge Analytica scandal for a prime example of how much damage this can cause; user data was collected from Facebook in an unauthorized manner and then used to manipulate people and distort their understanding of the facts, in the interest of influencing election results. Apple also recently said it would address our addiction to tech in an upcoming update to iOS.

Clustering notifications is an important step toward reducing the flood of messages that can distract anyone who's a regular user of services like Facebook, YouTube, or Twitter. YouTube actually took an earlier step towards reducing spam with the introduction of the notification bell last year.

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Before, simply subscribing to a channel would get all its updates sent to your phone, but now you need to click the bell next to the Subscribe button to keep getting notices about new content (much to the consternation of channels that upload multiple videos per day). YouTube determined that too many updates per day actually resulted in a non-trivial number of subscription cancellations, leading to the introduction of the bell.

But if you've clicked the bell for several particularly active channels, that can still lead to a lot of spam in your notifications, which can be distracting when you're trying to get work done during the day. By clustering them all into one message, you can deal with the content on your own time -- something YouTube is willing to do even though it will lead to less engagement and fewer visits per day.

The takeaways

  1. The YouTube mobile app now has an optional timer to remind you when it's time to take a break, and the ability to condense its notifications into one daily digest, instead of updating you every time of your subscribed channels posts a new video.
  2. Both of these tools are likely to lead to less engagement on YouTube, but social networks have been under increasing pressure to turn away from deliberately addictive behaviors.

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Tom is the senior editor covering Windows at Download.com.