Want to quit your smartphone?
Feb 21, 2024

Want to quit your smartphone?

Kashmir Hill of The New York Times switched to a flip phone for the month. Now, she’s not sure if she’ll go back to the smartphone full time.

Once a week, many of us get that dreaded screen-time report courtesy of our smartphones. But a recent study found keeping track of our average usage doesn’t help us control our screen time all that much.

Caught in the loop of screen-time shame like so many of us are, New York Times tech reporter Kashmir Hill decided to do something about it.

Marketplace’s Lily Jamali spoke with Hill about her experience breaking up with her iPhone and replacing it with a flip phone, T9 texting (texting on nine keys) and all, because she’d finally had enough.

The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.

Kashmir Hill: I would wake up in the middle of the night and struggle to go back to sleep and inevitably reach for the phone, and then I’d be reading articles or online shopping, and I would be up for an hour, two hours, three hours in the middle of the night. It just was making me feel terrible. When I was driving and when I got to a red light, I would just start thinking about my phone and whether I should just quickly look at it, check if I have a message or a notification. And I just thought, “This isn’t safe,” and I just didn’t like that my phone was kind of the first thing that came to my mind as this default activity that I should do in so many different moments.

Lily Jamali: Once you had your flip phone up and running, what kinds of changes did you notice to your day to day?

Hill: At first, it was really hard. One of the hardest things for me was I realized how reliant I was on Google Maps to tell me how to get anywhere more than 15 minutes away. That was hard, but I actually loved it, because over the course of the month, I figured out a kind of mental map of where I lived, which I had not had before because I’d outsourced that to Google.

I had this actual physical urge to reach into my pocket all the time and pull out my phone or to stroke its screen. I called it my thumb twitch. It was this impulse I had that lasted for at least two weeks. When I was standing in an elevator or when my mind would wander briefly, I would reach for that phone. But when you get the flip phone, there’s nothing really to look at. You open it up, and it tells you the time and it tells you if you have a message or a missed call, but it didn’t have the kind of wonders that were offered up by the smartphone.

Jamali: And how about the way that you communicated with people? Did it change that too?

Hill: Yeah, texting on the flip phone is very annoying. It’s one of those classic phones with nine plastic buttons that you press. It’s got T9 texting. And so it was very laborious to send messages that way. I didn’t have easy access to Instagram and WhatsApp and Signal and all these other communication platforms. So I started calling people, and I would hope that they would talk to me. And I just discovered that people don’t like to use their phones as phones. People would not pick up. If I left a voicemail, they would — if they responded at all — they would text me back. And so it was just a little hard to get people to talk on these supposed “phones” that they have.

Jamali: The way you describe your life without a smartphone, it sounds like a piece of heaven, if I can be honest with you. Better sleep, more time in your day, even looking less stressed, according to your husband, whatever that means. Were there also some negative aspects of the experience?

Hill: One of the nice things about smartphones, I think, for so many people is that it kind of lets you work on the go, right? You can check into Slack from your doctor’s waiting room, you can check emails when you’re out and about. And I didn’t have that ability. And you know, I’m a technology reporter at The New York Times, and sometimes my editors need to get in touch with me. And so, I would basically warn my editor, like, “Hey, I’m going to be interviewing somebody for an hour, I’m not going to be reachable.”

I remember one day I had an interview at 4 p.m., an event that night and I basically went till the next morning before I looked at a computer and saw that I had a message from her. And so, it forces you to be disconnected, which can be hard, but also it’s what made it so nice. It’s a real break from kind of being plugged into the internet all the time if you give up your smartphone,

Jamali: It’s incredible all the little things that occurred to you as you made the switch, things that you didn’t even realize you were using the smartphone for.

Hill: I heard from a lot of readers after I did this piece, a lot of people who are very enthusiastic about their flip phones. And this is a complaint I heard from them: We live in this increasingly smartphone-centric world, and businesses assume that you’re going to have access to the internet on the go. You know, you pull into a parking lot and you can’t pay for the parking, or you get to a sporting event and the ticket is supposed to be a QR code on your phone. So I did hear from people who were complaining that we’re moving towards a world where it’s not an option to opt out.

Jamali: After you wrote your piece about switching to your flip phone, I’m sure a lot of people are really thinking about making the switch. I know I was really thinking about this after reading your piece. And I wonder what kinds of advice or recommendations you would give to people thinking of pulling the trigger on this?

Hill: Going to a flip phone is pretty extreme, but I did recommend the idea of doing “flip phone February” where people that are struggling with their relationship with technology or with their relationship to their phone should go and get a flip phone. If you’re going to do this, you should check in with your carrier first to find out what their “feature phones” are — that’s kind of the industry term for them — what feature phones they support. You can’t just buy any flip phone and expect it to work on your network. And then you should think through the moments when you need a smartphone to charge your car, or be on the go, and to warn your loved ones that they’re not going to be able to message you on WhatsApp.

There is actually this really useful tool online called the Dumbphone Finder, and there’s about 100 or so different models you can choose from, and some of them do have Waze or WhatsApp or Signal. So if there are things that you need, there’s increasingly companies that are catering to that.

But if you can’t make the jump to a flip phone, there are ways to make your smartphone less addictive. One academic I talked to found that changing your phone to grayscale and making the screen black and white reduces people’s usage of their phone by about 20%. You can also turn off the notifications. And definitely don’t make my mistake — do not sleep with your smartphone next to you. It should not be in your bedroom. It should be in a different room. It should maybe be turned off at night. It really is disruptive to peoples’ sleep in a serious way. And I think just trying to keep your smartphone off your body more can help. Leave it on the counter. Some people told me they put it in a drawer, but get it out of your pocket where it is so tempting to put your hand in there and pull it out.

More on this

The feasibility of breaking up with your smartphone seems to hinge at least in part on the kind of job you have.

In her piece for The New York Times, Hill said she worried she might get fired if she failed to respond in a timely manner to Slack messages and emails. Her editor inserted a note about that, calling it “an unfounded projection, clearly masking a deep and uncontrollable desire to return to the smartphone.”

A reader of Hill’s article commented about this too, writing that while they wished they could switch to a flip phone, it wouldn’t be practical. “It is integral to my job,” the reader explained, “and I don’t have the luxury of just ‘resolving things’ when I get where I’m going.”

When I talked to her earlier this month, Hill was still using her flip phone, but she’s also set up a second phone line for her iPhone for those times when she really needs the internet.

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Daisy Palacios Senior Producer
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