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Opinion: Life without a smartphone is great

Ditching my iPhone was the best decision I’ve ever made.
Image by Wejdan al Balushi
The subtraction of a smartphone can be an addition to your life.

Like most university students, leaving for college came with many goodbyes. Besides bidding farewell to my childhood memories, in a leap of faith, I abandoned my iPhone.

Tired of obsessively checking my email, aimlessly looking at the Weather app and navigating drama from social media, I sought to end the toxic relationship with my smartphone. 

A few weeks before leaving for the University of Minnesota, I popped the SD card out of my iPhone 13 and slid it into a device called the Light Phone II. This phone would enable me to call and text without the distractions of email, a web browser or third-party apps. It looked alien with  a small, gray rectangle with a black-and-white e-ink display. 

“It looks like you put a Kindle through the dryer,” my father said.

It was love at first sight and nearly two years later, I have no regrets.

Joe Hollier co-founded the company Light, which sells the Light Phone II, with product designer Kaiwei Tang after Hollier became disillusioned with his work at a Google-funded design school called 30 Weeks. The program sought to create new smartphone apps that maximized profits from data collection and advertisements, which he felt failed to reflect the actual needs or wants of consumers. 

He calls the experience of using his company’s pared-down technology “going light” — reducing our reliance on attention-seeking, time-sucking devices.

“I just kind of felt like everyone I was talking to was feeling habitually overwhelmed and craving an escape,” Hollier said. “That’s sort of where this idea of ‘going light’ came from and trying to remember there was a time before we were constantly online.”

Switching to the Light Phone II was a learning curve. Texting on the tiny keyboard proved difficult, and the phone made a strange buzzing noise when I tapped each letter. After scrolling through the music player, contacts list and notes app a few times, I ran out of ways to entertain myself. But my frustration turned to satisfaction as I realized feeling bored was the whole point.

I tried using the phone’s navigation system, but I found it clunky and impractical. As a result, I don’t always know when the bus or train is coming, and I have to rely on written directions when driving. While I’ve learned to lean into the uncertainty and improved my navigation skills as a result, I won’t deny the stress that comes with having no immediate way of knowing where I need to go. 

“There is inconvenience in using the Light Phone, but if getting back those hours of your time and that attention span is worth it, I think they outweigh some of that friction,” Hollier said.

During my past two years at the University, I’ve started to think less about what the Light Phone lacks and more about the relief it provides me. No checking Canvas notifications when I’m out with friends, no procrastinating assignments scrolling through an Instagram feed and no sitting on the toilet for twenty minutes lost in a Google search spiral. 

I’ve become more focused and present in every aspect of my life. If that means having to look up the address of a house party before I leave my apartment, so be it. 

The biggest downside of using my phone isn’t the device itself.

It’s the disappointment of sitting eagerly at a table of classmates with faces buried in their phones. It’s the frustration of watching a sunset from the bus in a sea of glowing rectangles, wishing everyone else would pay attention to the fading sky instead of watching 30-second video clips. It’s the terrifying realization that smartphones have dramatically inhibited our ability to interact with our physical surroundings, and there is no conclusive evidence about their long-term effects on our brains or society.

Maybe I sound melodramatic — after all, smartphones have significantly increased connection on a local and global scale. They’ve provided new job opportunities, access to important safety resources and are a reliable source of entertainment, but are these devices worth their deleterious effects on our well-being?

Rates of depression among teenagers have skyrocketed since the release of the iPhone in 2007, with levels of loneliness rising by nearly 50%, according to a survey from Monitoring the Future, an FDA-sponsored research program that has surveyed eighth, 10th and 12th-grade students across the United States since 1991. Adolescents are spending less time with friends, less time on dates and having less sex. 

Patrick Smith is the principal of Maple Grove Middle School, which recently instituted a school-wide ban on smartphones. Students can bring their phones into the building but will face consequences if they take them out at any point during the school day.

Smith said the culture of the school quickly changed. 

“They’re standing at their lockers and socializing with each other face to face,” Smith said. “At lunchtime, they’re talking to each other across the table.” 

Smith added that students were more engaged in the classroom and completed a higher number of assignments. 

Procrastination and low productivity are not habits confined to middle schoolers. We all know how fast 10 minutes on social media can quickly turn into an hour of mindless scrolling. And yet, when people see my phone, usually their first question is, “How do you live like this?” 

I often want to ask them the same thing.

The Light Phone II might not be for everyone, but carrying a supercomputer in your pocket is not a requirement for survival. After all, our human ancestors made it 200,000 years without them. 

The world may seem to revolve around QR codes and apps, but eighteen months after ditching my iPhone 13, I feel more connected to life than ever before. 

Even in times of stress, the sun still rises every morning. If you looked up from your phone, you’d see it too.

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  • Mary
    Mar 2, 2024 at 10:56 am

    Wow, thank you for this thoughtful and reality-based opinion piece. I appreciated your description of the pros and cons of switching to the Light phone and found the downside of finding yourself ready to socialize in person in a sea of people on their cell phones very compelling. Great piece.

  • Rachael
    Mar 1, 2024 at 9:20 pm

    My husband and I switched to the light phone II in January 2023… as you said, best decision we ever made. I love that I can have my phone on me, and not be constantly bombarded by notifications. We have tablets if we need them, but I don’t think I could go back to a smart phone. I feel so much more connected to the world around me, and am happy that my kids don’t see me always looking at a screen. I think it has made me even better with my phone, because I have so many fewer notifications. It is funny, it bothers the older generations that the two of us switched more than the younger ones. Not to sound dramatic, but I feel the light phone has given me my life back.

  • CM
    Feb 29, 2024 at 8:04 pm

    I really enjoyed reading this. Nicely written with so many good things to think about!

  • IkeRunsDaStreets
    Feb 29, 2024 at 5:33 pm

    Best writer ever debate over ️️

  • Jane Dugan
    Feb 29, 2024 at 1:46 pm

    Old Person: At age 86, I LOVE MY SMART PHONE! I don’t have to wait till I get to a library to look up the many questions I ask Google, depending on what I’m reading, hearing on the news, etc. However, at my age I guess I’ve developed enough “muscle memory” that I never neglect looking out the window, walking and enjoying the natural environment, listening to the birds, etc. The solution would seem to be a compromise, as it is in most aspects of life, right?

  • Paula
    Feb 29, 2024 at 12:16 pm

    What a courageous and insightful decision. I could feel in my heart your description of being alone among friends and travelers glued to their phones. I have felt this, too, even with my cell in my pocket or hand. As obvious as it may seem, I want to suggest to those who could not imagine ditching their phones to start (or deepen or maintain) a regular meditation practice. This is where I am, at least for now, and it works reasonably well. When I find myself wandering off on social media or email, I have grown more skilled at noticing it and stopping. Sometimes, I do this several times a day, but each time, I become more conscious. Thank you for sharing your valuable thoughts on this.

  • Yarmo M
    Feb 29, 2024 at 11:58 am

    So many great points in this article. We need to put the phones down more and engage in our surroundings! Well written and researched Huppke.

  • Galoot
    Feb 29, 2024 at 10:55 am

    I have an iPhone, but I don’t look at it on the bus. It’s such a luxury to not have to drive. I like to take advantage of the 20-minute ride up Lyndale Ave. on the 113 looking at architectural nuances of houses and older commercial buildings. Sometimes, I’ll notice new restaurants popping on Hennepin Ave., while riding the 114 and remind myself to check them out later.

    I see the sunrise and the sunset, too. I also see people, with their glowing faces; looking stern, foreheads furrowed, thumbing at their screens. They seem lonely. People will look up from their phones at me periodically. They seem bewildered that I’m just sitting there, taking everything in. Perhaps thinking, ‘who’s this creep looking around at stuff?’ But that’s the idea. I’m just sitting there watching humanity, watching people on the street, watching people mindlessly driving, while texting (you can easily see that from a bus). Frequently, I just let my mind wander. What a wonderful feeling!

    On my commute, I see eagles flying over the Mississippi, while crossing the Washington Avenue Bridge. I think about their freedom from all-things-human. I also see garbage in the gutters and graffiti on buildings and wonder how it all got there. I’ve seen people walk in front of busses, while looking at their phones. I’ve seen people walking down bike lanes, while looking at their phones, while approaching cyclists riding hands-free and texting on their phone. I see lots of things. Lots of good . . . and not so good.

    Though my bus has a destination, I can’t help but wonder where did we go wrong and where the hell are we all going? These electronic things rob us of our time — to just “be” and think.

  • Drew Bromley
    Feb 29, 2024 at 10:48 am

    Wow! No Spotify or camera capability is a killer though.

  • Crow
    Feb 29, 2024 at 9:33 am

    I did this too! Ditched my Iphone 11 for a beautiful blue nokia flip phone. I’ve never had better mental health. And, I don’t feel like I’m missing out on anything. 10/10 would recommend to everyone.

  • E
    Feb 29, 2024 at 8:48 am

    This is what we need to be talking about!! Applause from all around

  • Ana Paula Zamorano
    Feb 29, 2024 at 8:41 am

    Good article, gives us something to think about

  • Julia
    Feb 29, 2024 at 8:25 am

    I really enjoyed the article but I think you might be overlooking some of the annoyances of not having a smart phone, like not having a camera. That being said. you did encourage me to put down my phone on the bus this morning and look out the window.

    Feb 29, 2024 at 12:46 am

    Amazing article Sir Huppke, this one is like mash potatoes without gravy!!!