I've never had a smartphone or used social media, and I’m in my 40s, so when I see young people like 17-year-old Logan Lane and those in her “Luddite Club” take a stand and pause the technology that’s been in their lives since birth I am in awe.
Poverty made me a late adopter. I had no computer throughout college nor any phone — not even a landline — in my early 20s. My boyfriend’s family lived nearby and I could use theirs when I needed one. In 2006, I bought my first cellphone, a prepaid Nokia brick phone, to coordinate my father’s cancer treatment while away from home, and finally committed to a monthly plan 11 years later, in 2017.
When people discover I don’t have a smartphone, they expect me to give them a sermon on technology’s ills or they congratulate me for going off the grid. I correct their misconceptions that I avoid technology. With a computer and Wi-Fi, I use the internet for email, news and research; Zoom for remote teaching, meetings and medical appointments; YouTube for music’s balm.
Staying off the always-on world of smartphones has benefits. Preventing myself from diving too deeply online reduces decision fatigue and news overload as I would expect if Google was within my reach every moment. Limiting people’s ability to reach me organically prunes my social network’s dead branches.
But it’s becoming increasingly difficult to access the world without a smartphone.
I first encountered social exclusion while searching for a San Francisco room rental in 2016. One renter disqualified me since my phone couldn’t handle roommate group texts.
My exclusion zone has since widened and now includes restaurants that accept reservations only via apps or that have menus accessible via the dreaded QR code; and healthcare businesses that use HIPAA-compliant apps for scheduling and communications. I’m bracing for when I can no longer access email or board a plane without a smartphone.
It’s already a challenge to use the BART public transit system in San Francisco since it eliminated paper schedules showing every train line's timetables, bestowing upon the app-less the pleasure of downloading 10 PDFs.
My father never used a computer and considered me a wizard because I could retrieve information online. But my “powers” extended only so far. Accessing virtual medical care for him would have required a smartphone app.
Fun also often requires a smartphone. When offered an extra ticket to a U.S. Open tennis tournament, I jumped at the chance to peek into this elite event. But the ticket allowed entry only if displayed on a smartphone. I attended on the graces of my smartphone-equipped friend, like Cinderella sneaking into the ball.
Why am I making my life difficult? A smartphone’s immediacy still poses too great a health threat to take the plunge. I love Oreos but don’t keep them at home for the same reason I don’t carry a computer in my pocket. I know my vulnerability to tech's addictive power and don’t want to torture myself with craving.
With a family history of addiction, I’m cognizant of my propensity for excess. The internet and texting can be dangerous distractions for me. I quit looking at Twitter in 2021, demoralized by the constant updates of others’ accomplishments. Lonely interactions with men also revealed my susceptibility to compulsive texting. A recent report from the surgeon general on the dangers of social disconnection recommends that we avoid or limit our technology usage to minimize digital harm.
I fear that once flip phone users die out, I'll be forced to convert to a smartphone. But “vintage” technology like flip phones has captivated Gen Z, giving me hope.
With accumulating data showing links between mental distress and excessive technology use, it’s past time for us all to reassess our digital diets. Collectively we should preserve access to vital services and information for those who don’t have a smartphone, whatever their reasons. Laws requiring businesses to accept cash in cities such as New York, San Francisco and Washington provide a model.
Being an active participant in society shouldn’t require owning a smartphone. Technology once promised to expand my world, but the more of it I use, the more I feel like a rat in a cage.
Stacy Torres is an assistant professor of sociology in the Department of Social and Behavioral Sciences at UC San Francisco.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.