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12 April 2023

The rise of “dumb phones”

Chunky bricks and Noughties flip phones are creeping back into the mainstream, as an antidote to smartphone addiction.

By Sarah Manavis

Whenever a piece of technology becomes obsolete (or nearly so), there is always the chance that, after a few years, it will experience a nostalgic revival: no longer simply dated and clunky, but fashionably “retro”. In gaming, consoles like the Nintendo 64 and even old Gameboys have experienced a major resurgence; so too have boxy, nineties digital watches; and Polaroid and older digital cameras. The products most ripe for a resurgence tend to be those which have a classic or interesting design, remain easy to use, and are associated with a happier, more fun, or merely simpler time.

One piece of old technology that felt destined to gather dust, however, was the pre-iPhone era mobile phone. These phones (now dubbed “dumb phones” in contrast to our present day “smart” ones) have little to recommend them in the 21st century: ugly design, unintuitive functionality (lest we forget tortuously trying to send a text on a nine-button keyboard) and an association with the diet culture and tabloid hysteria of the 2000s (flip phones being a fundamental accessory in the imagery of both). The smartphone swiftly killed off its predecessors. What fun can a dumb phone offer now?

And yet chunky bricks and Noughties flip phones are creeping back into the mainstream. In 2022, many companies reported rises in purchases of dumb phones, and analysts predict that they will continue to rise over the next 5 years. New companies are creating deliberately “minimalist” phones, which offer simple features such as notes and maps, alongside the ability to call and text, without access to downloadable apps. But rather than being framed as a wistful return to a better time like most retro technology, these dumb phones are gaining popularity specifically as an antidote to social media-driven smartphone addiction.

With people’s screen times unhealthily high and awareness growing of the negative impact of platforms intentionally draining us of our attention, dumb phones provide an easy way to get offline. It helps that, in a cost-of-living crisis, they can be a cheaper alternative to a smartphone too (a friend of mine who never upgraded from his Nokia pays a phone bill of £5 a month). They appear to offer a middle ground between being “always online” and the unrealistic possibility of dropping all forms of digital communication.

This third way sounds like a straightforward option for those wanting to cut back on their screen time. But is this move away from smartphones actually helping people to stay offline? The rise of the dumb phone comes as part of a broader Y2K revival in popular culture, where, on Instagram and TikTok, Motorola Razrs and Nokia Slides are being used as fashion accessories alongside skinny scarves and butterfly clips, becoming as normal to the Gen Z wardrobe as low-rise jeans. In this context, dumb phones appear to function at least in large part as a component of a trendy aesthetic – one, it feels important to note, that is driven by social media.

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This, ironically, is a significant part of the dumb phone trend: that dumb phones tend to be good for getting engagement online. Content about them, such as reviews of more modern versions and videos of Y2K babies hailing their use on drunken nights out, has proven to attract a lot of views for its creators. Online communities surrounding these types of phones are also surging in popularity, such as the sub-Reddit r/dumbphones, which has more than 18,000 members. Videos about dumb phones are especially popular on TikTok, which you need a smartphone to use.

The online popularity of dumb phones is part of a paradox within the anti-social media movement – which has grown in the last several years in response to the oversaturation of internet usage during the pandemic. People earnestly desire to be less addicted to their phones, but express that desire on social media. Though the aspiration to log off exists and the technology to help people do so is available, this hasn’t necessarily led to a generation that is using social media less. In fact, while some reports suggest Gen Z is shunning social media more than older generations, this is a skewed picture, applying only to older platforms – not TikTok, which they are using more. This doesn’t account for screen time either: young generations may be using fewer platforms, but the time they spend online averages up to nine hours a day. Even in many reviews of modern dumb phones, people admit to eventually going back to their smartphone.

For some, dumb phones may merely be a short-term fashion accessory – for others they could indeed become a long-term fix for phone addiction. But whatever their fate, the longevity of dumb phones will be decided online.

[See also: The revolution will not be brought to you by ChatGPT]

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