Life without a Smartphone in 2021? Challenge Accepted!

Image of a flip phone next to an iPhone, surrounded by small salt rocks.

The COVID-19 Pandemic propelled us further into the digital environment. In 2019, before the Pandemic, Americans spent approximately 3 ½ hours a day on their smartphones. Since early 2020, American’s smartphone usage exploded. The internet is now a critical utility, akin to running water and electricity. The FCC and federal lawmakers are working to ensure broadband access to all Americans. But after the Pandemic ends, what are we going to do with all that fast internet?

The information “superhighway”, as it was once called, is a true blessing. The internet has undoubtedly enhanced livelihoods. We all have more access to consumer goods, social groups, and critical information, all of which lead to the advancement of society. Older adults are able to keep connected to family members, food, and health care, even though they are the most effected by social distancing requirements. Even social media has positive effects on social connectedness during this distant time.

As I write this essay, I am connected to the University of Minnesota WiFi, which allows me to browse countless articles, listen to streaming music, and post this content to my blog, all without any lag or buffer. I love the ability to FaceTime my family back home, pay for my parking without touching the meter, and rent a shareable scooter on campus. And yet, I feel a little hollow at the end of the day as I scroll through my social media feeds while lying in bed. 

It seems all technological advancements produce great benefits alongside great costs. The automobile is critical to our society, and it is also a major contributor to the climate crisis. Modern farming practices produce an abundance of food, and it also floods rural well-water supplies with nitrates. The smartphone allows marginalized communities to connect with each other, and it also infects its users with increased anxiety and depression.

I started to notice the negative aspects of my smartphone in 2015, which is around the same time anxiety and depression skyrocketed in teens. I saw myself, and my friends, constantly scrolling through our socials. We documented our lives in meticulous detail. Our photos looked perfect. Our posts were always insightful. We were doing what everyone else was doing. And it was driving me nuts.

I tried several times to break up with my phone. It started when I would leave my phone at home before going out for a walk or a bike ride. Then, I tried switching back to one of my old flip-phones in undergrad. I lasted about 4 hours before I returned to my smartphone. I wasn’t ready to decouple from immediate access to social media, google maps, and music playlists.

The smartphone is one of those “can’t live with them, can’t live without them” inventions. Critical to the advancement of our society, the smartphone catalyzes many of our ailments. Misinformation spreads like digital wildfire. The most educated and wealthiest companies in the world can’t figure out how to stop it. Social media platforms, in particular, tarnished a collection of great innovations, namely the smartphone, and also the personal computer and internet in general. Consumer technology was not always tarnished. Can we ditch the bad, but keep the good?

Much like quitting smoking, I’ve tried several times to quit my smartphone. I’ve returned every time. But this time, I feel different. I sit today, post-corona, inspired by authors like Catherine Price, youtubers like Karla Holt, and bloggers Thomas Goulding, who all encourage me to make a change. Of course, you can’t “quit” something that you don’t think is a problem. Before the Pandemic, I didn’t pay much attention to many problems in my life. I now recognize the importance of improving my health, reducing my carbon footprint, enhancing my attention, and removing toxic products in my life. I think my smartphone contributes to many of those issues.

In June 2021, I plunged into the “Basic Phone Challenge” (for real this time). I ordered a flip phone from AT&T and put my iPhone in a drawer. My return to 2007 has been beautifully nostalgic. I rock a flip phone with swagger, proudly answering phone calls in public, hoping that others notice. I type messages with the T9 keypad. I call my friends directly, and snap the phone shut when done. I take low-quality photos with the five-megapixel camera, none of which automatically sync to my other devices. I download podcasts from my computer and transfer them via USB to play on my phone.

Throughout this experiment, I will write about my daily interactions, summer trips, technology hacks, and wellbeing while living a smartphone-free life. My goal is to be smartphone-free for at least six months. I hope you join me on my journey! You can subscribe to my blog using the form below.

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