Eearlier this year, Angelo Profera’s smartphone gave up. Like many 21-year-olds, he had used it a lot: messaging friends, scrolling through social media and taking care of personal admin. But he had also begun to feel that the telephone was more duty than convenience. “I felt a lot of pressure to be connected,” he says. “I didn’t like how much energy I was putting into answering voicemails and being available all the time.”
As he searched for a replacement phone, he had a brainwave. He left the store with a phone that had no internet and could only receive calls and text messages: a dumb phone. It was a bold move for a native smartphone, and Profera, who lives in Switzerland, was initially concerned that his new device might cause some problems. Instead, he says, it has changed the way he interacts with the world.
He now calls people when he wants to talk to them, instead of having drawn out chats on WhatsApp, which has improved the quality of his relationships. And he feels more confident and productive, also in his work as an engineer. “Since I was calling people much more regularly, I felt more comfortable talking to companies and getting things done.”
Without the distraction of a smartphone, he feels freer, describing the experience as “almost spiritual”.
Profera is not alone: even as smartphone sales continue to rise globally, an increasing number of people are trading in their smartphones for simpler, more basic models. HMD Global, owner of Nokia, recently reported that the market for limited-feature flip phones is up 5% in the US and rising in Europe, while reports suggest sales in Australia have doubled in the past year. Nokia has even embraced the term ‘dumb phone’.
This first iPhone was released in 2007 and just a year later the UK Post Office coined the term ‘nomophobia’ to describe the fear of going without a mobile. Now smartphone use is almost ubiquitous in affluent countries. UK mobile users spent an average of 4 hours and 14 minutes a day on their phones in 2022, while in Australia it was closer to 5 hours.
We are regularly warned about the effects that too much screen time can have on our sleep, relationships and mental health. There are also frequent studies showing increasing prevalence of smartphone addiction.
Ru Litherland, 49, has passively observed the rise in smartphone use over the past 16 years. The London-based gardener finds it difficult to understand how people have become so attached. “There’s an uncritical embrace of it,” he says.
“Technology should be there to serve us, but so often technologies are created to make money … I approach it from the perspective of: how useful is this, and what are we losing from it? As often as there is a gain from technology, there is also a loss.
While Litherland acknowledges the practical side of smartphones, he believes they can take people away from appreciating the world around them. Although the alternative may involve a long queue at the bank; time spent waiting on hold at a call center or communicating by letter, Litherland sees these tasks as opportunities for more meaningful social interactions.
Dr. Zeena Feldman, a senior lecturer in digital communications at King’s College London, says smartphone naysayers typically fall into three groups: the older generation, who have never really used them; middle-aged people who have chosen to give up their phones for reasons of privacy, and younger people who “have realized the toxicity of this addiction we have to our little pocket computers”.
Feldman says Gen Z advocates tend to be middle class and fairly privileged – typified by the New York City ‘Luddite Club’.
Temporary or permanent smartphone blackouts have also received celebrities: Michael Cera, Selena Gomez and Aziz Ansari are all converts.
But these movements are far from mainstream. Litherland suspects this is why people have a hard time understanding his choice. He’s glad to get the chance to talk about it, he says, because few people seem to engage with the idea when he mentions it. The reactions are usually confused.
Litherland reluctantly bought his first smartphone a year ago. It was a decision he felt forced into: many social activities at school are now organized through WhatsApp groups, and he was worried about limiting social opportunities for his child. Apart from WhatsApp, he hasn’t downloaded any social media apps, but says he appreciates the camera.
For those who have already used smartphones, it can also be difficult to transition back to life without one. Catherine Webb, 45, has tried several times and used a dumb phone for months at a time. She says she finds it “liberating”.
“In free moments, you can just think, instead of picking up the phone and finding out that the world is ending, or that you have a troubling work email, or that someone on the Internet is getting annoyed by something trivial.”
While she’d like to use a dumb phone permanently, the pandemic-accelerated rise of QR codes for everything from restaurant menus to mobile tickets has made that too impractical.
In an increasingly connected world, Feldman says giving up your smartphone is often a privilege afforded only to those who don’t depend on one for work. Unlike Cera, Ansari and Gomez, most people don’t have agents or assistants to roll for them. Gig economy jobs like delivery driving require a smartphone; while the expectation of fast communication in other industries means that one does not have a serious limitation of one’s productivity and ultimately attractiveness to employers.
David Sorauer, a digital marketer from Sydney, finds our addiction to smartphones troubling, especially the idea that people need to be contactable at all times. Instead of switching handsets, he has used every available setting to silence his smartphone. He permanently set his phone to grayscale so the screen is less appealing, uninstalled all social media apps and saved other time-consuming apps such as email, news and web browsers.
This means he can still use the phone for practical tasks like finding his way, tapping and taking pictures, but the device is far less tempting for mindless browsing. He says that it has not affected his job because he sets clear expectations for when he can be contacted. “Reducing my addiction to being constantly connected” has given him “a sense of freedom and clarity”.
Even telcos are on board with less drastic disconnection measures. In Australia, Optus has created a ‘pause’ setting that allows users to disconnect from their phones and internet for certain periods of time. Optus marketing managing director Matt Williams says the break peaks from 21.00 to 22.00 on weekdays, when users have an average of 28 hours of ‘break’ per month.
Meanwhile, Gen Z interest in dumb phones may not be a wholesale rejection of technology either. The 1 billion views of ‘flip phone’ videos on TikTok suggest that it’s as much about the nostalgic (or ironic) trend towards Y2K technology as it is about switching off.
ISLANDle Lordieck, who lives in Berlin and works in computer programming, also says it doesn’t have to mean cutting the connection entirely. He got his first smartphone in 2018, but the 28-year-old recently switched back to a dumb phone because he found it too distracting.
Although his work is internet-based, using a laptop allows him to contact team members via Telegram and Slack during the workday.
Lordieck admits he would return to smartphone use if it was a requirement “for my dream job,” but adds, “I would try not to be forced to use a smartphone in my daily life again.”
Lordieck has noticed a social cost: friends contact him less now, and he thinks it may be because his name no longer appears on their list of WhatsApp or Telegram chats.
But Webb believes there are also social costs to using a smartphone. “People … opt out of the reality that’s right in front of them and plunge into their phone reality,” she says. “And I think that’s a really bad option for all of us to have in our pockets.”
Research backs up Webb’s “telephone reality” comment. In 2021, a group of anthropologists from University College London described smartphones as “a place we live”, comparing use to a snail retreating into its shell.
A study by the University of Melbourne, conducted during the Covid lockdowns, also found that people used smartphones to calm themselves.
“People have figured out how to use them to strategically manipulate their own emotions,” says Professor Wally Smith, a computer-human interaction researcher who worked on the Melbourne study.
But while traditional forms of emotional regulation, such as listening to music, are typically harmless, Smith says smartphones can be a volatile resource that causes what the study authors call “disrupted regulation.” Watching a funny video or texting a friend can quell feelings of unhappiness or loneliness, but much of what we watch on our phones can provoke the emotions we’re trying to avoid.
“A thing [study respondents] did was go and look for news about the economy or news about the virus as a way to quell their uncertainty,” says Smith. “What they found would often throw up things that were actually more disturbing, more disturbing.”
This underscores why Litherland avoided smartphones for so long. “There are plenty of other ways to fill your time,” he says. “I’d rather go for a walk.”
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