Eden’s smartphone broke in January 2020. While most young people in his situation would quickly order a replacement with guaranteed next-day delivery, 22-year-old Eden is in no rush to get a new one telephone. “I was so fed up with the amount of time I wasted on it that when it broke, I didn’t get a new phone for almost a month,” he told me. “During this time, I noticed a great improvement in my mood and freedom of thought.”
He eventually struggled when it came to trying to communicate with people while traveling, forcing him to reconsider his phone-free lifestyle. But when he decided to get a phone again, he didn’t buy a smartphone again – instead, he opted for a Nokia 130. “I also deleted most of my social media accounts, except for Facebook – which I use on my laptop – because it’s useful to message people and check some pages I follow,” he said. “But I no longer seek it, or scroll aimlessly.”
Eden is not alone in wrestling with the insatiable urge to keep scrolling and consuming content. Gen Z has an average weekly screen time of 29 hours, 29 minutes a week, with 48 percent saying social media makes them feel “sad, anxious, or depressed.” Especially during the pandemic, many have found themselves slowly degrading their mental health by compulsively watching the world descend into crisis – also known as ‘doomscrolling’. With this in mind, it’s understandable that young people like Eden have stopped using smartphones for good.
Jade, 23, also recently switched to a brick phone. “It was a ‘fuck it’ moment,” he explained. “I thought about making the change for years, and – embarrassingly – one night I was reading 2000s manga at 1 am, saw all the characters using flip phones, and decided to just get one. I can handle the logistics later.”
He started using a spare Nokia he owned before buying a Motorola V3. “I was attached to my iPhone XR, but only used it when absolutely necessary,” he continued. “By then I had sold the iPhone, so technically I was 100 percent smartphone free.”
Like Eden and Jade, Mateo, 23, also uses a brick. Although he has a smartphone, he says he always leaves it at home and only uses it for “WhatsApp and maybe to flick through the news.” Mateo’s main phone, which he has had since the end of 2019, is a Nokia. “Not the original,” he added. “There’s snake two here.”
Eden, Jade, and Mateo may be outliers in their generation – 95 percent of Gen Z currently own a smartphone – but they’re part of a rapidly growing movement toward a society that’s less ‘online.’ In 2018, brick phone sales increase by five percent – the first increase in years. The “burner phone challenge,” where users try to live without social media for a week, is currently getting millions of views on TikTok. Writing for Wired last month, journalist Hussein Kesvani predicted that in the coming years, “we will see more people leave public platforms entirely, instead staying in small communities and friendship groups on more private platforms” . Eden, Jade, and Mateo may be ahead of the curve with their pared-down approach to social media.
“As a result of the pandemic, many of us will spend more time using our online social networks,” said Dr. Daria Kuss, associate professor at Nottingham Trent University, an expert on the psychological effects of internet use and technology. “Our online social networks and smartphones have become a window to the world during a time of significant restrictions on our everyday freedoms.” Count studies show that there is a link between high screen time and depression and anxiety, it’s no wonder that as the lockdown lifts, many of us are re-examining our relationships with our phones.
Eden certainly feels like she made the right decision to ditch her smartphone. “At first, it was to stop wasting time on social media, but after my phone broke I realized it was affecting my mental state more than I knew,” she said. Eden also found that there was another bonus to using brick: “I also save a lot. My phone cost £12 on eBay and I’m on pay-as-you-go for 1p per minute and 1p a text.”
Mateo said he kicked his smartphone habit to reduce the number of distractions in his life. “Now, when I’m waiting for someone or walking, I have a lot of time to think. It helped me become more comfortable with my own thoughts,” he says. “And I didn’t realize that was actually something you had to train yourself to do.” Eden feels the same way: “I’ve really enjoyed the moments now where I can do nothing and just think, instead of worrying about everything that’s going on online.”
Dr Kuss agrees that switching to a brick phone can improve your mental health. “Brick or burner phones have significantly reduced functionalities compared to smartphones and therefore will only interact with users for a limited period of time, especially for purpose-oriented tasks, such as making phone calls and writing simple messages,” he said. “This frees up extra time to spend with family and friends, and engage in leisure activities, which boost mental health and well-being.”
But naturally, there are downsides to being smartphone-free in 2021. It’s hard to tear yourself away from addictive apps, but it’s even harder to navigate the 21st century without constant access to things like Google Maps, Uber, or WhatsApp. Arguably things are even more it’s hard now because of the pandemic, with smartphones to do everything from ordering a pint to ‘checking in’ somewhere. But how complicated it is Really to move to a brick?
Eden said it was sometimes difficult to get out and about without maps, but added that at least her sense of direction has improved a lot. (There is one whole body of evidence to suggest that people can lose their natural navigational skills if they are not used enough). Both Eden and Mateo admit that the only real drawback, for them, is that it’s not easy to take pictures.
Jade acknowledges that phone availability may become more of an issue post-lockdown, particularly with regard to personal safety once nightclubs reopen. But for now, things are mostly fine. “Most of the awkwardness of losing instant connectivity can be sidestepped, though, with a little planning. For example, if I just take my flip phone to the pub, I ask my friends to buy my drinks for me at app if they can,” he said.
Overall, it appears as though switching to a bricked phone is less of a hassle than most people think. Small inconveniences like ordering drinks on a friend’s phone or going without Google Maps seem like small fry compared to the mental health benefits of switching to a burner. Eden, Jade, and Mateo unanimously agreed that they felt better — Eden, in particular, said he felt “a million times better” — leaving the smartphones behind.
“At first it can be a little scary in the open world without the crutch of constant connectivity, but you get used to it eventually,” Jade said. “And besides, you’ll never know if you’ll like it unless you try it.”
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