nokia feature phone on a sheet of white paper on a wooden table

Can a feature phone save me from smartphone addiction or will it just make life harder?

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In the modern world of surveillance, constant accessibility and data-harvesting, feature phones — or dumbphones — are enjoying a bit of a boom.

I’m lost and late meeting some friends for brunch, and yet, I’m only around two miles away from the home I’ve lived in for the past seven years. I check my decade-old Samsung E1200 (pictured below) for the time and consider calling one of the brunch attendees requesting rescue, before deciding instead to trudge back to the Tube station to double check the map outside. It’s humbling to discover just how reliant I’ve become on my smartphone in the past 10 years.

Feature phones are enjoying a slow but steady resurgence. They’re still niche, but searches for dumbphones, feature phones and smartphone addiction have risen notably in the past five years.

Feature phones of 2024 aren’t like those of the past — many of them have sleek designs, touchscreens, navigation apps, music options and cameras. Options like The Boring Phone, The Light Phone and Punkt, as well as apps like Minimalist Phone, which can convert your current smartphone into something simpler, are growing in popularity. This boom is particularly prevalent among Gen Z, who are growing weary of the constant battle for their attention and data. According to this Guardian article, three in five Gen Zers say they’d like to be less connected to the digital world. And, almost half of all British teenagers say they feel addicted to social media, according to University of Cambridge researchers who have analysed Millennium Cohort Study data.

We’re learning that excessive smartphone use can impact our physical health, sleep quality, behaviour, cognitive development, academic performance and mental wellbeing, but how bad is the problem? Are we all secretly addicted to our smartphones?

The Samsung E1200, launched in 2012. (Picture above: © Pexels / Sora Shimazaki)


Are smartphones addictive?

“While smartphone addiction is not recognised as a clinical disorder it does share characteristics with other behavioural addictions such as internet and gambling addiction,” says Dr Robin Clark, medical director at Bupa UK. “The constant stimulation and ease of access provided by smartphones can reinforce compulsive checking and usage behaviours that interfere with work, relationships and other important aspects of your daily routine and life.”

“Smartphones are a vehicle for getting ‘dopamine hits’, because this neurotransmitter acts on areas of the brain to give us feelings of pleasure, satisfaction and motivation,” explains Marcantonio Spada, consultant CBT practitioner at Onebright and professor of addictive behaviours and mental health at London South Bank University. “Checking our social media notifications for likes or watching a YouTube or TikTok video are typical examples of activities associated with the dopamine hit.”

Professor Marcantonio also highlights how smartphones can be used to cope with anxiety in the form of, for example, avoiding anxiety inducing situations (e.g. meeting new people). But over time, the use of the smartphone as an avoidance strategy will perpetuate and worsen the anxiety state.

Why does it become increasingly difficult to close social media and communication apps?

“Your time is money; the more time you spend online the more money Big Tech and advertisers  make, says software developer and data privacy expert Gaël Duval, who also created /e/OS, an Android operating system that offers enhanced privacy controls. “The more they know about you the more time you’ll spend online. This is why such apps are designed to be addictive and why the terms and conditions around privacy are often hidden or too technical to understand. Many people are unaware that poor data privacy is the root of the problem, as their personal information is leaking like a burst pipe.”

Gaël highlights that opening messaging apps often leads to further passive scrolling on social media apps and news websites, where people show the best version of their lives and news stories often centre around shocking or negative stories.

“Everything you do online is also tracked and shared with advertisers and content networks,” he adds, “so the more time you spend online, the increasingly relevant the content becomes, which makes it continuously harder to stop scrolling.”

© Pexels / Tim Douglas
What’s the fallout of smartphone addiction?

“The constant consumption of so many images and so much information creates an assault on our senses,” says Dominique Antiglio, a sophrologist, best-selling author and founder of BeSophro. “It’s through our senses that we create our reality. What kind of reality are we living in when we constantly follow the lives of others or information over which we have little control?”

There’s evidence to suggest that too much smartphone use can also lead to impaired cognitive function and reduced grey matter in the brain, an area that’s responsible for memory retention and attention control. Studies have also highlighted a link between screen addiction and depression, anxiety and ADHD along with difficulties in cognitive-emotional regulation, impulsivity issues and low self-esteem.

“Portable digital media like smartphones and addictive apps are likely to contribute to shortened attention spans,” says Dr Robin. “By constantly overwhelming us with quick bursts of information and notifications, our brains are pressured to rapidly shift focus instead of sustaining concentration for longer periods of time. This conditioning toward short bursts of attention is a key reason our attention spans have declined over the past couple of decades as portable digital media has become more widespread.”

“Excessive smartphone use is linked to decreased satisfaction with relationships and work as well as a decline in self-worth,” says Professor Marcantonio. “The smartphone can be a gateway to self-doubt as we lose ourselves in a world of virtual comparisons with others. Perhaps most importantly, if someone is chronically on their smartphone, they’re not engaging in their reality or with ‘real’ people and are most likely to neglect their physical fitness and health, all of which have a compounding effect that erodes their overall quality of life.”

How does being constantly tracked and accessible to others impact us?

“Always-on culture means there’s higher demand to reply to friends, family, colleagues and even strangers, on various platforms, and this can be difficult to manage,” says Gaël. “Nowadays there are so many different avenues to make contact via technology, it can easily become overwhelming. Plus read receipts add the time pressure of responding promptly so as not to appear rude.”

He highlights that everything you do online is tracked and sold. It’s like leaving your front door open and allowing Big Tech to come and rifle through your belongings.

“Having such tailored content delivered to your palm might sound like convenience,” Gaël adds, “but it’s actually the reason people find it so difficult to switch off, for fear they may ‘miss something’ important to them or because what they see on their device resonates with them so strongly.”

© Unsplash / Camilo Jimenez
Do I have a smartphone addiction?

While smartphones provide us with convenience and the ability to connect with friends and family from afar, the impact they have on our mental health is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore. Although counterintuitive, the excessive use of a smartphone can create feelings of loneliness and disconnectedness from reality. Having this nagging little device always in the back of your mind means you’re less present in the moment and, as a result, could be neglecting important personal relationships and activities IRL.

In my week of using a dumbphone, I’ve got lost, missed important appointments (who knew how much my reminders and calendar app ruled my life), been unable to send parcels without a QR code, painstakingly written down directions on receipts while peering at Google Maps on a friend’s phone and spent hours staring at grammatical errors on Tube adverts. But I’ve also slept better, been less anxious and felt much less stressed — ultimately, if something is truly urgent, someone will call you. WhatsApp messages, work emails and Instagram notifications can all wait.

However, having returned to using my smartphone device, I’m straight back to my former behaviours. Checking it frequently, avoiding starting difficult or boring chores by watching Reels on Instagram, and generally using it as a security blanket for my overactive brain. I would never have said before that I have a smartphone addiction, but the relationship I have with my device is certainly not healthy. I asked the experts for their tips on how to reduce smartphone usage in a world that’s become increasingly geared towards them.

How can we combat smartphone addiction?

“Turning off the notifications on your phone is a good first step to take. Dedicating a specific time during the day to check your phone will help you stay in better balance throughout the day,” says Dominique. “Spending time in nature, gentle movement, and spending time with family and friends is also a must and will help to rebalance the hectic pace of life, creating the opportunity to nurture yourself.”

“It’s recommended to regain control with initial periods of abstinence, which will be easier than trying to block specific apps,” suggests Professor Marcantonio. “For example, putting the smartphone in a lock box with a timer.”

Professor Marcantonio also recommends specific periods without screens, namely phone-free mornings before work or school and no smartphones after 7pm each evening.

Dr Robin suggests a social media audit. “No one is forcing you to use social media or follow any accounts you don’t want to. Try to take a step back and think about how your social media use makes you feel. Do you feel better or worse after looking at certain accounts? Where accounts stir negative feelings, try unfollowing or muting them to reduce your scroll time and increase time for positivity.”


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