Earlier this year, Angelo Profera’s smartphone gave up the ghost. Like many 21-year-olds, he’d been using it a lot: messaging friends, scrolling social media and taking care of personal admin. But he’d also started feeling like the phone was more chore 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 voice messages and being available all the time.”
Browsing for a replacement phone, he had a brainwave. He left the shop 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 smartphone native, and Profera, who lives in Switzerland, was initially worried his new device might cause some problems. Instead, he says, it has transformed the way he interacts with the world.
He now calls people when he wants to speak to them, rather than having drawn out chats on WhatsApp, which has improved the quality of his relationships. And he feels more confident and productive, including in his work as an engineer. “With calling people much more regularly, I felt more comfortable speaking to businesses and getting things done.”
Without the distraction of a smartphone he feels freer, describing the experience as “almost spiritual”.
Profera is not alone: although smartphone sales globally continue to rise, 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 ‘dumb phone’ moniker.
The first iPhone was released in 2007, and just one year later the UK Post Office coined the term ‘nomophobia’ to describe the fear of going without a mobile. Now, smartphone usage is almost ubiquitous in wealthy 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.
Ru Litherland, 49, has passively observed the rise in smartphone usage over the past 16 years. The London-based market gardener finds it difficult to understand how people have become so attached. “There’s an uncritical embracing of it,” he says.
“Technology should be there to serve us, but so often technologies are created to make profit … I approach it from the perspective of: how useful is this, and what do we lose from it? So often where there’s a gain from technology, there’s a loss too.
Though Litherland recognises the practical side of smartphones, he thinks they can take people away from appreciating the world around them. Though the alternative might involve a long queue at the bank; time spent waiting on hold to a call centre, or communicating via 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 refusers 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 because of privacy concerns, and younger people who “have realised the toxicity of this dependency we have on 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 celebrity endorsements: Michael Cera, Selena Gomez and Aziz Ansari are all converts.