Just over a year ago, my pocket was picked while I was walking down a crowded sidewalk. Although the thieves didn’t manage to snatch my wallet, they did take my iPhone. My first thought was to replace it right away. But I stopped myself and asked a simple question: Does owning a smartphone make my life better, or worse?
Most Americans take it for granted that smartphones make life better, but the research says otherwise. Addictive apps are rewiring our brains, wasting our time and making it harder to focus. Social media make us more anxious and depressed. The light from our screens reduces melatonin and disrupts sleep. Distracted driving leads to more collisions and fatalities.
Worst of all, smartphones are making us forget how to have a conversation or sit and think without distraction. Go to any restaurant these days and you’ll observe entire families staring at devices rather than talking to each other, or parents shoving screens in front of their kids’ faces rather than teaching them that life isn’t always entertaining.
I decided to try living for a time without a smartphone. Perhaps just a week, or two weeks. I was willing to give it a shot, so I bought an old, $30 flip phone at a pawn shop and began my post-smartphone life.
The most immediate advantage of not owning a smartphone, I quickly learned, is the ability to immerse yourself in social situations.
The benefits of this decision became apparent about a week after I made the switch. My wife, stepdaughter and I were in Washington visiting the new National Museum of African American History and Culture. For the first time in seven years, I didn’t have internet access all day.
By midafternoon, I started experiencing withdrawal symptoms and, like a true addict, I used my wife’s smartphone to check Gmail. The initial rush of seeing so many unread emails was spoiled by a work-related message. For the next half-hour or so, I walked around thinking about that message instead of being present at the museum. I was physically there, but my mind was focused on work that didn’t deserve my attention on a weekend.
The most immediate advantage of not owning a smartphone, I quickly learned, is the ability to immerse yourself in social situations. Without a smartphone to look at, you don’t have much of a choice but to be present, and other people — whether it’s a colleague or a stranger on social media — can’t insert themselves as easily into your life at inopportune times. Even when we resist our smartphones in social situations, they’re always there in our pockets buzzing with notifications, begging us to check them. Just by virtue of being there, smartphones occupy a large space in our minds.
So I made my short-term experiment permanent. And that decision is paying dividends.
I credit finally finishing my first book, in part, to not having a smartphone. Another benefit is sleep. There’s no longer a little supercomputer sitting on my nightstand daring me to check it at 3 a.m. I no longer stare at sleep-disrupting blue light in the moments before bed, reading outrage-inducing clickbait or emails that can wait until morning.
Not owning a smartphone sets a good example for my stepdaughter. When we’re on the train or at the dinner table, I focus on her and what she has to say rather than what for-profit tech companies want me to think about. I show her that it’s indeed possible to live life without being tethered to a screen.
Do I miss Google Maps? Kind of, but I’ve also discovered that not having it makes driving safer. I now check a map before I leave the house and write down basic directions, just like I did pre-2007. This keeps me focused on the road rather than the phone. If I get lost, it’s nice to ask people for directions.
Do I miss not having a camera? Sometimes. But there’s actually something liberating about not having the ability to memorialize every moment. I can enjoy a view or an event without the hard work of getting the perfect photo.
What about Uber and Lyft? Not having them has motivated me to ride my bike more, which has been great for my health and saved me hundreds of dollars.