Many of you who are reading this can probably remember life without a smartphone. You know what it’s like to not have the internet, email, maps, apps, and texting available whenever you want and wherever you are. In some ways, these things are useful. You can read an email while waiting in line at the airport. You can have a text conversation with a friend when you’re at the gym. It’s wonderful to have a Bible on your phone that you can read and search at any time. As we all know, the conveniences of a smartphone are many.
At the same time, some questions are worth asking: Do the conveniences of using a smartphone outweigh the inconveniences in every situation? Do the pros of using a smartphone always outweigh the cons? People will answer these questions differently. The key is to think seriously about it in your own situation. Too often people use smartphones mindlessly. When this happens, smartphones end up being a dominating gadget in life with multiple detrimental effects. More than a few people are addicted to their smartphones. As I noted in a previous issue of The Outlook (September/October 2022), Christians need to practice self-control and time stewardship when it comes to using a smartphone. This article is a follow-up to that one.
But back to the big question: Do the pros of having a smartphone outweigh the cons? I have been asking myself this and other similar questions for the last few years. At first, I told myself that having a smartphone was necessary for me. But as I thought about how I was using my iPhone, I began to notice that it was a major distraction in my life. Although I typically avoid most social media, I noticed that various things on my phone were constantly pulling me back to it. (Of course, smartphone manufacturers and app developers make it this way. They make phones addictive because more screen time from us means more income for them.) My phone was taking up much of my mind space, mental energy, and thought processes. Or, as someone else said, my smartphone was making me dumb!
One fall night in 2021 another thing hit me: my phone was keeping me from being fully present. I was trying to have a text conversation, watch an eBay item, check baseball news, and write an email while playing a board game with my daughter. In the middle of the game, I got angry at my phone, shut it off, and put it away so I could finish the game. I was reminded that such multitasking is destructive not just to my mental state but also to my relationships. After this happened, I became convinced that I should try out a flip phone to escape the negative effects of my smartphone.
At that time I had also been reading some helpful books that offered me insights about using digital media wisely. One book I read was How to Break Up with Your Phone by Catherine Price. Price helpfully pointed out for me some of the ways smartphone usage has negative effects on the brain. For example, she noted that our smartphones absorb us and leave us in “an intensively focused state of distraction.” This book also showed me how to make my iPhone less attractive and appealing (e.g., shut off notifications, delete certain apps, make the screen monochrome). This all was helpful, and I did take quite a few of these steps which reduced my phone usage. But I still kept thinking about getting a flip phone because I wanted to get away from my smartphone.
During this time I also read Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World by Cal Newport. Newport’s emphasis that “less can be more” in our relationship with screens and his step-by-step guide to a thirty-day “digital declutter” were incredibly helpful. Although the book doesn’t necessarily advocate getting rid of your smartphone, it did convince me that I could probably get along without one.
After all this, in November 2021, I ditched my smartphone. I went down a bit of a research rabbit hole and purchased a Nokia 6300 “candy bar” phone. It reminded me of the phone Neo used in The Matrix. The move from a newer iPhone to an old-school dumb phone was quite a change! All I could do with the Nokia was make calls and text with a numeric keyboard (remember T9?). It had some other features, but they were a pain to use so I rarely utilized them. But it was a good life experience. I went from using my iPhone for around seventy-five minutes per day to using my Nokia for about five minutes a day (excluding phone calls). I picked up my Nokia around ten times per day compared with having about sixty pickups per day on my iPhone.
The first few weeks of not using a smartphone were really good. I didn’t have any withdrawal symptoms because I had slowly begun using my iPhone less before I got rid of it. I told my friends that I would not be texting much, so I didn’t have to worry about that. My mind felt less cluttered, and I had more mental energy. I wasn’t constantly distracted by thinking about my eBay sale or emails or texts. My attention span recovered pretty quickly. After just a few weeks of using a dumb phone, I could focus on things much better since I wasn’t trying to multitask. Getting rid of my smartphone also freed up more than an hour per day. This meant I had more time each day to do other, more productive things. I finally read some books on my to-read list. And I kept a digital detox journal to record the whole process. One thing I wrote in the journal is this: “My brain is back!” It was such a good mental feeling that I can still remember it today.
On the topic of texting, I do still occasionally send and receive short texts (e.g., “be home soon”). However, I don’t engage in text conversations. Although it might seem like this would be detrimental to friendships, I found it hasn’t negatively affected them. I make a phone call or send an email instead of texting. In doing this, I was reminded that a phone call is superior to texting when it comes to having a serious conversation. When I engaged in text conversations with my smartphone I found myself questioning what people meant in the text, and it often gave me angst. When I talk on the phone, however, I rarely question what people mean. It’s less stressful. Texting is also time-consuming. A conversation that took me thirty minutes via text took only five minutes in a phone call. For these reasons, I don’t miss texting.
I’ve been using a dumb phone now for more than a year. I did end up changing to a flip phone that has a few more features such as maps, podcasts, and music streaming. Although it’s a little clunky, it’s a great phone because it is useful but not distracting. I can go hours without looking to pick it up. Some days I use it so little that I forget where it is.
Can I get by without using apps for things like banking and flying? Yes. Last year I printed my tickets for flights. I do my banking and other similar things on my MacBook. I even did some pretty intense longer backpacking trips without a smartphone, and it went well. So yes, I learned last year that in my current situation I can live without a smartphone.
Some people might also wonder: after more than a year, do I want to go back to a smartphone? I haven’t seriously thought about going back to a smartphone at this point. I don’t want to deal with the mind clutter, distraction, and time suck that were so detrimental for me when I had one. In my experience, while I did enjoy my smartphone, it’s better for me at this point not to have one.
I’m not suggesting that everyone should ditch their smartphone. Nor am I suggesting that having a smartphone is less pious than not having one. But I do want people to evaluate their use of smartphones and think about the questions above: do the pros of having a smartphone always outweigh the cons? Is your smartphone ultimately making your life better or worse? Does it give you unnecessary anxiety? Does your smartphone help your relationships, mind, and mental state, or hurt them? Different people will answer these questions differently. When I was wrestling with these questions I was mostly focused on the legitimate benefits of having a smartphone. I didn’t care about the entertainment value of a smartphone or social media apps. Those things are not crucial for daily life. And I did write down a few solid benefits of using a smartphone.
However, when I thought about the cons of having a smartphone, for me they were more than the pros. First, as I mentioned, my phone was a major distraction and a time waste. Some things on my smartphone took up a lot of my limited mental energy and mind space. Sometimes I had sore eyes and headaches after using my phone. And my iPhone was expensive (not to mention accessories like cases and such). Finally, smartphones have real privacy issues. Companies do track people and mine people’s data like crazy; these things concern me. Those were the cons of having a smartphone in my case. And those are the main reasons why I ditched my smartphone.
Perhaps some of you have thought about getting rid of your smartphone. If so, my recommendation is this: give it a shot! It’s not hard to get a cheap flip phone and give it a try for a month or two. There are also some good non-smartphones out there: the Light Phone, the WisePhone, the Ghost Phone, and others. Before you get a dumb phone, it is helpful to first scale back your smartphone use so it’s less of a shock when you quit using it. (There are some helpful tips for this in How to Break Up with Your Phone.) You might also want to let your friends know about it so they don’t wonder why you aren’t on social media as much or why you are texting less. And if they’re good friends, they won’t mind talking on the phone or meeting in person more.
For those of you who are sticking with your smartphone, that’s fine too. But I hope my story makes you rethink the way you use your smartphone. Is it taking up loads of your time? Do you find yourself constantly thinking about it and picking it up all the time? Is your phone like an appendage of your hand? Does it bring extra anxiety into your life? If you answer yes to any of these questions, you should probably think up a plan to scale down your phone usage to free up your time, protect your mental energy, and engage in life more fully. Get the books I mentioned: Digital Minimalism and How to Break Up with Your Phone. Read them carefully. And take real steps to use your phone less. Your mind, body, and heart will thank you. Your friends and family will most likely thank you too!
To be sure, smartphones aren’t evil and flip phones aren’t a mark of godliness. But as Christians, we do need to use our God-given time wisely (Ps. 90:12; Eph. 5:16). We need to take every thought captive in obedience to Christ (2 Cor. 10:5). And we need to make sure that things in this world—like smartphones—don’t distract us from following Christ in a single-minded way. In our screen-dominated world, we need much Christian wisdom when it comes to using digital technology like a smartphone. It’s another thing for which we should pray. Thankfully, the Lord is generous; he gives us wisdom when we ask (Jas. 1:5). And blessed are those who find wisdom (Prov. 3:13)
“If you have questions about minimizing your smartphone use or getting a dumb phone, you can email Shane: firstname.lastname@example.org”
Rev. Shane Lems is the pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church in Hammond, WI. You can visit his book blog at www.reformedreader.wordpress.com.