Digital Detox: Students Embrace Flip Phones on Campus

During any given laundry cycle, students face losses of upwards of $2,000 just for being forgetful—that is, if they accidentally wash their smartphones.

Yet, it doesn’t have to be that way, according to UTC senior and economics major Caison Cavanaugh. When he washed his previous phone, it cost him a fraction of the price to replace it.

“I accidentally left it in my pocket when I was doing laundry. It did not survive the wash,” Cavanaugh said. He added that if he washed his phone again, he would “just go and get a new one. Twenty bucks at Walmart.”

As national headlines scramble to cover the misfortunes of Apple’s latest iPhone 15, including overheating and cracking issues, durability issues seem prevalent and inescapable.

Zack Nelson, from the YouTube channel JerryRigEverything, tests the durability of the iPhone 15 Pro. His teardown content recently soared to YouTube’s top ten trending videos. 23 Sept. 2023.

While many people who part ways with their devices sometimes “downgrade” to a flip phone out of necessity, Cavanaugh’s different.

He’s never owned a smartphone.

“As time went on, and I started to see smartphones appear, I started to see how glued to them people were,” Cavanaugh remembered. “It’s not like I don’t know how to use them. I just don’t.”

Illustration 1: Caison Cavanaugh demonstrates the calling function of his flip phone. He feels like it affordably does everything a phone to do. 4 Oct. 2023. (Illustration by Mason Edwards)

His $20 Nokia flip phone includes every feature that he needs, from calling, texting, email, internet browsing, a maps service and even limited app downloading—though, he’s rarely ever used anything besides calling, texting and Minesweeper. Unlike the people waiting in food lines in the University Center, he occupies his time with anything besides a smartphone.

Illustration 2: Caison Cavanaugh plays Minesweeper while waiting for class. An economics major, he often hangs out in the Rollins College of Business. 4 Oct. 2023. (Illustration by Mason Edwards).

“Generally, I try and bring a book with me or something though, that I can read if I have downtime,” he said. “I mean, admittedly, sometimes I’ll just hand out… I don’t always need to be doing something.”

While Cavanaugh’s next device will likely be another flip phone, UTC senior Owen Reed felt disappointed after realizing he might need an iPhone.

“Unfortunately, I think I’m going to have to get rid of it, starting next semester,” Reed said. “There’s lots of ways it makes things incredibly inconvenient, which I usually don’t mind.”

Majoring in history and political science, Reed intentionally left smartphones behind for a device he explained was, “designed for elderly people, ‘cause I get pop-up ads for like Alzheimer’s medication and stuff all the time.”

Reed’s TCL flip phone served him faithfully throughout the past year, and while he’s made other life changes, he feels the switch to older technology majorly improved his life stability and mental health. When he held an iPhone, Reed said, he noticed that his actual phone usage always dwarfed his expectations for screen time.

 “It’s not so much that I don’t have the self-control for it, it’s that they’re specifically designed to erode any self-control that you have…,” he explained. “All these apps are designed to keep you spending time on them.”

So, Reed picked up the book Digital Minimalism: Choosing a Focused Life in a Noisy World. The book suggests tempering technology use, and to demonstrate the importance of going screenless, author Cal Newport challenges readers to begin a technology purge: 30 days without stimulating screens.

Reed tried it for himself, intentionally leaving his smartphone behind while he went out with friends or headed to school.

“Once you start using technology for one thing, and for this thing and for that thing, it just starts to all pileup,” explained Reed. “It really easily overtakes everything you’re doing, even when it’s not necessary.”

While Reed felt more present without his smartphone, he also experienced a sense of detachment from the broader world.

“[Going without a smartphone] can really can instantly make you feel ostracized,” Reed added. “I went on a road trip this summer, so I didn’t have Wi-Fi for a long time, so I just had no idea what was going on in the world. You miss all these trends and all these moments.”

A hand holds all the available colors of the iPhone 11. The iPhone 11 was the last to feature rounded edges. 7 Nov. 2019. (Photo by Daniel Romero on Unsplash)

On campus, Reed carries two phones—his flip phone and an inactive iPhone. While the smartphone doesn’t have cellular service, it functions by connecting to the school Wi-Fi. Some school resources expect students to have a smartphone.

“It’s almost required to have something like that to function as a part of society these days,” Reed said. “I can’t access Canvas or any of the school resources without it. I have to bring it to campus every day, because I have to do the DUO two-factor authentication thing.”

Still, he felt the extra burden was worth simplifying his digital life. At doctors’ offices and in restaurants with online check-ins and QR codes, he didn’t mind asking for paper versions. However, after his brother switched from a flip phone to a smartphone for work, Reed can imagine a scenario where he needs online versatility.

“As I start applying for jobs, start entering in the professional field, I can’t afford to inconvenience myself and potential employers like that,” Reed said. “It is really unfortunate, but I think it does just emphasize that it’s a pretty essential part of today’s world.”

As technology evolves, having a choice between digital minimalism or the all-encompassing utility of a smartphone becomes more of an illusion.

“It’s a foundational, organizing principle of our society now,” Reed summarized. “You have a smartphone, and it’s part of the way you plug into culture, education and employment—all of it.”

About Mason Edwards

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