I’m 24, but I used a Nokia ‘dumbphone’ for the whole 2010s. Now I long to go back to it.

January 18, 2024

My gran has a new smartphone, and I am trying to help her navigate it. But she doesn’t see the point. She says her smartphone is “malevolent, sneaky and sly” because things on the screen disappear and cannot be retrieved. Her old “dumbphone” is more reliable. “I love it,” she says. “It never lets me down.” I ask how she travels without maps. “I work it out before I go.” What about tickets for trains or events? “Your mum’s always sorted tickets.” Even though I’m a tech-savvy, gen Z 24-year-old, I understand her arguments perfectly. I also made a choice to go without a smartphone for a whole decade, from 2010 to 2020. In 2020, my final year of university, I caved and bought one, a choice encouraged by my mum, who was anxious for me to be more contactable.

Back in 2010, when I was 11, the small number of kids in my year who had smartphones were treated like celebrities. We would crowd round, heads bent over a video game or YouTube, snatching the phone off each other to have a go. But then, over the next couple of years, smartphones became the norm, and suddenly everyone was posting pictures and sending messages or even nude shots from their own.

Despite this, I decided to resist and stick with my brick phone. Part of it was self-preservation. I was extremely addicted to being online – I would sit for hours at the computer when I was at home – and it worried me that I could bring this addiction out into the wider world. I also didn’t want to be someone who got something just because everyone else had one.

And so suddenly, instead of being one among many, I became the odd one out. I couldn’t take pictures or play music or send funny videos, or use revision apps for my GCSEs. By the time I got to sixth form, people would openly comment on how strange it was that I still had a Nokia brick.

At least it was a good conversation starter. But it also had some practical advantages. I didn’t have to worry about it getting stolen, which meant when I left it in shops, on buses, on park benches or on trains I nearly always got it back. Even if I didn’t, I could find a replacement on eBay for just £7. The battery would last three days, and whenever I dropped it I could pick up the pieces, click them back together and turn it right back on. I could throw it against the wall, if I wanted. And I had less responsibility. Even on nights out: no tickets, no Ubers, no Google Maps – no anything. I was just a free spirit gallivanting around with a bottle of wine.

But there were negatives, too. I couldn’t listen to music when I was out and about. I also couldn’t take any photos, neither for Instagram nor for practical things, as I do now for plumbers or landlords, or to scan important documents. I couldn’t receive messages from people who didn’t have my mobile number, often missed pub invites and last-minute drink requests from potential dates. And though I may not have been tied down by tickets and the like, it meant my friends had to do these things for me.

Navigation required an extensive planning stage. Before going anywhere that I hadn’t been before, I had to get a scrap of paper, study Google Maps and draw out a route in pencil, marking the names of the roads I needed to turn down. If I lost the scrap, I’d just ask people on the street. I’m aware that this seems absurd to most people now.

Against all odds, I managed to muddle along like this for years through school and university, despite the constant jokes about me being a drug dealer. I never wanted to get a smartphone. But by 2020 the world had changed so as to make life without a smartphone untenable.

An example: students at many universities are now required to download an authenticator app on their phones, to release a code every time they want to access their emails. That alone makes smartphone ownership compulsory, or at least is a bigger obstacle than anything I encountered in the decade with my Nokia.

It is simply a fact that it is nearly impossible to separate your life from your smartphone now. Going without one means relying on the generosity and patience of other people, and it makes it hard to access essential services. My gran has a family to help her order her shopping, sort out her mobile banking, order her Covid tests and book her appointments. But many other people do not have this support system – which leaves many elderly, homeless, or otherwise vulnerable people out.

At the same time, researchers are still trying to unpick the effects of phones, the internet, and social media on our mental health. According to recent studies, the decade spanning 2010-20 saw the beginning of a sharp decline in the happiness of young people. This is, of course, the same decade that the internet went from being a place we accessed for finite periods at home on our parents’ PC to something that lived in our pockets. It’s this shift, the social psychologist Jonathan Haidt has suggested, that has driven the decline in mental health, arguably more so than social media itself.

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