With nowhere to go and little to do at home, many college students—myself included—have turned to our phones for meaningless entertainment to fill the coronavirus-induced void. But, if you’ve ever spent more than 15 minutes on Instagram, Twitter or (God forbid) Facebook, you’ll know that the content we consume online is often disheartening and overwhelming. This especially rings true in today’s world, when it seems as though COVID-19 is the only point of discussion, and everyone is anxious for what will come next.
As our generation’s most enlightened voice (Lorde) philosophized at the ripe age of 16, “Maybe the internet raised us / Or maybe people are jerks.” I propose that both are true, which is why it’s important, now more than ever, to seek out and support those often-unheard-of corners of the web that leave us feeling better than before we found them. Now may be the only time in our lives when staying home and consuming endless content can actually improve the world. Why not improve ourselves while we’re at it?
Here are ten YouTube channels and mobile apps that I’ve been using to work on my health (both mental and physical), connect with friends and unwind. While this list is far from exhaustive of all the good things the internet has brought us, it’s not a bad place to start.
If you’re looking for some study break entertainment, try … SHU AND TREE
Shu and Tree, adorable poodle siblings belonging to a Korean couple, are far from the centerpiece of the YouTube channel bearing their names. Making appearances instead as supporting characters, the real premise of the channel is nearly too good to be true. Starring a different dog each time, the hypnotizing video series gives viewers an inside look at the meticulous process of Shu’s and Tree’s owner, a successful dog groomer. Her gentle touch and voice send the pets in her care into a state of serenity as they are washed, brushed and trimmed—and viewers feel equally warm and fuzzy. Behind her calming persona, you’ll find no shortage of experience and talent; the transformations are mind-blowing in and of themselves. The screen will fade in from black to reveal a rare cross-breed: half dog, half mop. By the end of the grooming, the same dog—now nearly unrecognizable—sports the sophistication and softness of a beauty pageant contestant (or an expensive teddy bear). The groomer’s husband films and edits the videos, ensuring that each dog’s unique personality is put on full display. The videos’ titles are perfect evidence of this. When translated into English, they have a charm all their own: “What planet are you from?” is a personal favorite, along with “I don’t care” and “A baby angel from heaven.” If you’re looking for wholesomeness, Shu and Tree’s channel is a great place to start. After all, nothing is more satisfying than watching someone talented do what they love (especially when there are cute dogs involved).
Sounds good, where should I start?
This brown poodle puppy could melt anyone’s heart: https://youtu.be/kUw11yUWMMM
If you’re tired of working in your childhood bedroom, try … ForLoveof Ambience
The “background noise” genre on YouTube has a lot of great contenders, but none check off my boxes quite like ForLoveof Ambience, a channel with less than a hundred subscribers created just three months ago by photographer and animator Kerri Watry. Each hour-long video uses sight and sound to transport viewers to an ideal working destination. If you miss the hustle-and-bustle of a coffee shop, work best in a rainy hotel room or want to give it a try in the middle of Magic Kingdom at Disney World, this is the place to go. The soft background sounds and subtle animation effects create an immersive experience—it’s the closest you’ll get to feeling like you’re in a public space again. As Watry says in a video description, “Since most bars and restaurants are closed at this time, I figured I’d bring a cozy atmosphere to you.” Watry posts a new video nearly every week, each using a photo from a place she has visited herself as a foundation for the sounds and animations. If you’re feeling cooped up, I would definitely recommend checking her channel out!
Sounds good, where should I start?
Here, come study in this wine bar with me. You can hear me writing and flipping pages and everything, it’s great: https://youtu.be/BV55mtEeYyY
If you’ve spent all of quarantine beefing up your Letterboxd account, try … CinemaWins
Have you ever seen a film and genuinely enjoyed it, only to go online the next day and see the internet taking one giant collective dump on it? It’s a horrible feeling to know that other people saw irredeemable faults in something you really liked. In direct response to CinemaSins, a popular YouTube channel highlighting everything wrong with buzzworthy movies, CinemaWins was born. Their mission statement is simple: “Because liking things is more fun than not liking things.” CinemaWins strives to be a source of positivity in an increasingly hate-filled online world. The channel’s narrator, Lee Boucher, executes the impossible task in a way nobody else could, bringing a lighthearted sense of humor and excitement to every aspect of the films he reviews. It’s difficult not to smile along as he gushes over all the things that make them great, often highlighting tiny details and behind-the-scenes choices that you wouldn’t hear anywhere else. His editing is professional, consistent and filled with personality. If you’re seeking validation for liking a movie that your snobby friend hated, or if you’re itching to add some more movies to your quarantine watchlist, this is the place to go.
Sounds good, where should I start?
Here’s a special two-part series dedicated to “Knives Out,” a film that everyone needs to see. Beware, spoilers ahead: https://youtu.be/ivAJIS0C-Ig
If quarantine has made you realize you don’t want to be a part of modern society after all of this is over, try … Liziqi
So you’re yearning to get away from the responsibilities of mundane, everyday life. Look no further: Li Ziqi, a soft-spoken but hardworking woman living in the picturesque Chinese countryside, has been uploading her adventures in nature for the past two years. Thanks to her resourcefulness, Li is a master artisan. She has created furniture out of bamboo, dresses out of grape skin and meals out of produce that she harvests herself. It’s easy to get lost in her world, and although her final products leave viewers with mouths agape, the real magic comes from the process—filmed so beautifully it feels as though you are right there with her. The camera work is as crisp as the vegetables Li cuts in preparation for her family meal and each shot is chosen with the precision of an experienced cinematographer. This gives the videos an otherworldly magnetism, each one pulling you in like a woodland sprite leading you on a new quest. Li’s life is mesmerizing in the best way—especially because, for most of us, it couldn’t be any farther from our own. Living out your quarantine fantasies has never been easier.
Sounds good, where should I start?
In this video, Li hand dyes and sews a dress with beautiful floral patterns. She makes a matching top for her mother as well. Get ready to go numb for a bit: https://youtu.be/ejwQRHtS6cw
If you’re having trouble finding motivation to get out of bed, try … Evelyn from the Internets
This global health crisis isn’t just hurting us physically. As an indirect but undeniable result of the pandemic, our collective mental health is in the worst place it has been for a long time. In a time like this, we look to those with wise words in order to keep going. These people are the type that never falter when faced with a challenge, because they have a 10-step system of meditation, exercise and other healthy habits at their disposal like a Westerner’s pistol. And I don’t know about you, but that kind of person usually makes me want to fling myself off of a bridge. They just set the standard too high; how can I expect to crush step 10 if I can’t even make it through their 10-minute video? Luckily for all of us, comedy writer Evelyn Ngugi isn’t one of these people. Out of all of the advice I’ve seen floating around the web, none of it is as effective as hers—and that’s because she’s just a regular person who’s trying her best and uploading the results, not some sort of lifestyle guru who claims to have all the answers. Ngugi sets realistic goals for herself and understands that life is not a race to be the most successful. In a video about her working-from-home morning routine, Ngugi makes a great point: “Shonda Rhimes wakes up at 5:30 in the morning just so she can have some alone time before her kids wake up. That’s how much she loves herself, she would rather be awake and in her own company than sleeping. Can’t relate!” She also uses choices and mistakes from her own creative career as building blocks to help others, and the result is authentic, accessible and actually helpful. After watching an Evelyn from the Internets video, you will feel like your progress, however small, is valid and worth celebrating. Ngugi’s lighthearted, low-pressure approach to life is made even better by her sense of humor, which shines brilliantly through her simple-yet-genius advice. The energy she brings to life is so infectious, it might just make you get off your butt and do something good for yourself.
Sounds good, where should I start?
When discussing her reasons for wanting to exercise more, Ngugi explains: “What I’m after in 2019 is to feel alive and energetic and vibrant and able to sit criss-cross applesauce for more than five minutes without every joint popping.” The full video, called “How To Set Goals (That You’ll Actually Reach 🙄),” is over a year old, but it’s one of her best. Plus, it can be comforting to watch someone who isn’t yet aware of the current situation: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=O3s8FFI63Ls
If all these “sorry we’re in a pandemic” emails are not finding you well, thanks for asking, try … Youper
Whether because of physical isolation, financial insecurity, unrealistic work expectations, health-related anxieties or fears for the future of our world, it’s safe to say that most of us are feeling anxious right now. And in a time like this, when even your strongest friends are facing their own uncertainty, it can feel like there’s nobody to turn to. This is where Youper comes in. Upon downloading and opening the app, users are met with a minimalist chat-based interface. There is already a message waiting for you: “I’m Youper, your emotional health assistant. I’m here to help you feel your best.” A lot of mental health apps have overwhelming amounts of activities and information, but Youper keeps things simple. After establishing your goals (such as getting better sleep, feeling more optimistic or managing preexisting conditions like depression or anxiety), Youper asks how you’re feeling, and what the source of the feeling is. This feature is the heart of the app; through these daily check-ins and quick “conversations” about your emotions and personality type, Youper can identify patterns in your thinking and generate helpful insights about how you can feel your best. And because the advice is based on your answers, the more you use the app, the better those insights will be. If you’re, in fact, a person living on the planet right now, I highly suggest taking steps to manage your mental health—and Youper is a great place to start.
Cost: Free, with optional paid subscription for “premium” features such as symptom monitoring.
If your study “breaks” are starting to become hours long, try … Flora
The premise of Flora starts simply enough: Open the app and plant a virtual seed. The longer you keep the app open while focusing on another task, the bigger the tree grows. If you cave and exit before the specified amount of time has passed, your tree dies. As my friend described the app to me, I was skeptical that it could change my habits. I’ve been here before; most recently, I’ve put daily time limits on my social media usage, only to tap “15 more minutes” every 15 minutes. But after trying the app for myself, I realized that my friend was right to recommend it. What sets Flora apart from other “timer” apps of its kind is the way it diffuses and enforces accountability. Users have the option to plant a seed with a friend, meaning you’re both responsible for the life of the tree. When one of you can’t resist checking that Instagram notification, you both lose. If this doesn’t work, you can create an even stronger incentive: pledging via in-app purchases to donate money to a real tree-planting charity if you fail. (If you’re feeling generous after winning, you can donate anyway.) The more you use the app successfully, the bigger your garden grows. With a calming color scheme and an easy-to-navigate, game-inspired interface, Flora is simply and beautifully designed. Its innovative features make it possible for anyone to focus and for that, I highly recommend it.
Cost: Free, with optional donations.
If working (out) from home isn’t going well, try … Zombies, Run!
Exercise is good for you in a million ways, but with gyms now closed, our options for staying active are limited. If you’re anything like me, you need entertainment to distract yourself from the fact that you’re putting your body through pain on purpose—and that’s what makes “Zombies, Run!” so great. Created with the help of award-winning novelist Naomi Alderman, “Zombies, Run!” combines elements of video games, audiobooks and live fitness tracking. Through immersive interactive stories, the game transforms its users’ suburban streets into the desolate ruins of an apocalyptic world, complete with a hoard of zombies right behind you. Here is the description on their website: “You tie your shoes, put on your headphones, take your first steps outside. You’ve barely covered 100 yards when you hear them. They must be close. You can hear every guttural breath, every rattling groan—they’re everywhere. There’s only one thing you can do: Run!” Your neighbor’s house becomes a supply depot and the post office is suddenly a commune of other survivors. There are more than 200 different missions to complete, so getting bored is a near impossibility. Because each episode brings you closer to uncovering answers and saving humanity, you’ll be genuinely excited for the next day’s work out. It’s like being transported into “The Walking Dead,” complete with the ability to press pause when things get a little too scary. The app has different modes to accommodate any fitness level, adjusting itself automatically based on the user’s pace. This means that even joggers and walkers can successfully outrun the zombies—as long as they’re willing to speed up when they get close. The app also allows you to play your own music simultaneously, a feature I definitely appreciated. Considering we’re all living through the exposition of a dystopian young adult novel right now, I think it’s as good a time as any to practice being the main character.
Cost: Free, with optional in-app purchases.
If you need a brain-numbing game that involves no skill, try … Penguin Isle
For those who prefer a more passive gaming experience, or who cope best when their brains are switched on autopilot, Penguin Isle is among the best apps I’ve ever used. The premise involves building an island commune in the middle of the arctic, occupied by various breeds of penguins and other wildlife. Each penguin has a different job (such as a fisherman, lighthouse keeper, bakery owner or movie theater operator), and your job is to manage their revenue to buy new penguins and work stations. Penguin Isle understands that sometimes all you want to do is let your brain go blank, so the missions are simple: photograph your penguins, collect the little hearts they produce when they’re happy, open some treasure chests. There are only rewards; your penguins are never unhappy, and there is nothing to “lose” at any point. The game is all about upgrading, and you can do this at your own pace—build an empire if you wish, or put all of your energy into a few special ’guins. The design of the game is equally relaxing, from the music to the animation, to the background, to the interface. And while the game is meant to chill you out (sorry), there is still an element of fun—just wait until you unlock the amusement park, complete with a balloon stand, belly slides and fireworks made of confetti. Sometimes I like to follow around just one of my animals to see what they do; it’s amazing how the game’s creators managed to give each one a unique personality and sense of autonomy. One of the best parts about Penguin Isle is that it’s hard to spend a lot of time there—once you go through the rounds, there’s nothing else to suck you in and waste your time. That makes it perfect for a quick daily break. Overall, I think that in a time when everything seems to be slipping through our fingers, there is no better way to cope than playing God in a world where absolutely nothing can go wrong.
Cost: Free, with optional in-app purchases (though I’ve never felt the need to use any).
If your weekly Zoom parties are getting a little stale, try … PSYCH!
I know few of us would purposefully integrate more Ellen DeGeneres into our daily lives, but hear me out on this one; her app PSYCH! is actually pretty genius. It’s a multiplayer trivia game that requires no actual knowledge—just a Wi-Fi connection and a little creativity. PSYCH!’s layout is similar to Ellen’s popular Heads Up! game; the main interface displays different topics or “decks” that players can choose from. But unlike Heads Up!, which requires acting things out and giving clues in real life, PSYCH! has a much more long-distance-friendly premise. Each deck (such as “Movie Bluff,” “Word Up” and “Is That a Fact?”) is made up of multiple choice trivia questions and the friend with the most right answers wins the most points. But what makes this app worth downloading over other trivia games is the nature of the wrong answers—they come straight from you and your friends! For each question, you’ll be responsible not only for choosing the right answer, but for providing a deceptive wrong answer that messes up the rest of the group. The more your wrong answers get chosen, the more points you get. As someone who gets frustrated playing regular trivia with my know-it-all Ivy-League-reject friends, I love the fact that I can outsmart them without getting a single question right. If your group is creative, try bending the rules a bit: rather than trick your friends into thinking your answers are right, tell everyone to come up with the most ridiculous answer possible and vote for the funniest ones. Or use the new “And The Truth Comes Out” deck, which switches things up by asking players to create questions and answers about each other. Consider adding elements of a drinking game, if that’s what your group is into, and be sure to play over video chat for the full bonding experience. While its premise is simple, PSYCH! offers lots of ways to play, allowing every member of the group to get back that joy-and-rage-filled pre-virus game night feeling.
Cost: Free, with optional in-app purchases. You can definitely have a great time with the free decks, but for the full experience, try asking each friend to buy a different $0.99 bonus deck (such as “Poetry” or “Adults Only”).