“Sent from my shiny companion that’s taken over my life.”
That tagline appears at the bottom of any e-mail sent from the smartphone of a friend’s daughter. When I first saw it, I chuckled and thought that such a sentiment was strange for a teenager.
Yet there are signs that some young people are taking their lives back. Financial news site ZeroHedge reports that “dumbphones” are gaining popularity among young adults.
Generation Following Upon e-Generation
The technology that spawned the cellphone came gradually. I saw it in my years as a classroom teacher. First, it was pagers whose tone accompanied students’ requests to use the restroom when their true destination was the payphone in the school lobby. A couple of years later, a few students began texting each other over Blackberry devices. Then, flip phones gained ascendance.
The great technological break came in 2007 when all previous devices became obsolete with the introduction of the smartphone. It took a few years for the smartphone to filter into the student population, but by 2015, almost half of the students in my classes carried perpetual entertainment devices in their pockets.
As each new device replaced the last, two distinct groups emerged. The first was the “early adopter,” who panicked if they did not possess the most modern device. The other group was more frugal, clinging to whatever device they had until it was no longer usable. While some older people were early adopters, the bulk of those who demanded “the latest and greatest” were young.
Addiction and Depression
The smartphone also brought disadvantages and harms to individuals. A growing body of evidence links excessive cell phone use with mental diseases like addiction and depression.
The connection between social media and depression is well documented. One significant effect is known by the acronym FOMO—Fear Of Missing Out. Elizabeth Scott, Ph.D., draws the simple connection. “The fear of missing out refers to the feeling or perception that others are having more fun, living better lives, or experiencing better things than you are.” She continues, “Since the advent of social media, however, FOMO has become more obvious and has been studied more often. Social media has accelerated the FOMO phenomenon in several ways. It provides a situation in which you are comparing your regular life to the highlights of others’ lives.” (Emphasis in the original.)
Social media is available on other devices, but smartphone use enables viewers to participate in almost any setting.
FOMO is not, however, the only ill effect caused by smartphones. They also have a highly addictive element for people of all ages. Samuel Hunley, Ph.D., summarized the results of the recent scholarship. “It is possible that problematic smartphone use represents a form of addiction similar to internet addiction. Most people find it rewarding to check their apps and notifications. But some can become addicted to this positive feeling, compulsively checking their phones for updates. Such behavior could become stressful, leading to worsening symptoms of anxiety and depression.”
Why Choose an Obsolete Device?
Therefore, the desire to regain some control over one’s life by limiting or eliminating smartphone use is reasonable.
The ZeroHedge article recounts the story of seventeen-year-old Robin West from England. Miss West switched when she found a “brick phone” in a second-hand store. She bought it on an impulse for about ten dollars.
While her friends express surprise, Miss West is happy with her decision. “I didn’t notice until I bought a brick phone how much a smartphone was taking over my life,” she says. “I had a lot of social media apps on it, and I didn’t get as much work done as I was always on my phone. I’m happy with my brick—I don’t think it limits me. I’m definitely more proactive.”
Writing for Digitaltrends, Shubham Agarwal used more straightforward language. “I’m sick of looking at my phone all the time.” When other attempts to limit screen time failed, he also purchased a dumbphone, although he bought a new one. He summed up his experience in his article, “Switching Back to a Dumbphone Was the Smartest Thing I’ve Ever Done.” Later in the article, he added, “It made me realize how insignificant most of what I used to do on my phone actually is.”
The cases of Miss West or Mr. Agarwal are not unique or even unusual. Estimates are that customers purchased one billion dumbphones in 2021, up from 400 million in 2019. One out of ten mobile phone users in the United Kingdom uses a dumbphone.
Other practical advantages exist. Even when purchased new, dumbphones are usually less expensive than smartphones. A phone that cannot access the Internet does not need a costly data plan. Max Fletcher, writing for The Guardian, described another hidden benefit. “It all began one spring afternoon when a group of friends and I were mugged. The assailant demanded our phones and wallets, but when I handed him my Nokia 1110, whose keypad was strapped to it with an elastic band, the mugger’s response was categorical: “Nah, mate.”
Not an Escape into Nostalgia
Smartphone technology comes at a price—in economic, social, and moral terms. The rising popularity of dumbphones means that consumers can determine which features they don’t need and which they (and their minor children) can live without—and get a corresponding phone.
The resurgence of the dumbphone means that we all have the means to protect our mental health by deciding our levels of engagement with our phones. It proves that we can survive and thrive without the latest and greatest gadgets. This freedom is a good thing.