‘We need to go places and touch things’: the people turning away from smartphones

<span>The boom in vinyl sales is among the most noticeable features of the ‘newtro’ (new retro) trend.</span><span>Photograph: Neil Setchfield/Alamy</span>
The boom in vinyl sales is among the most noticeable features of the ‘newtro’ (new retro) trend.Photograph: Neil Setchfield/Alamy

For Bea, it was moments like finding herself scrolling though the news on the toilet that made her feel the need to reassess her relationship with her phone.

The 37-year-old from London had began to feel uncomfortable with the way pinging notifications and the urge to pick up her phone were encroaching on her life. So when her iPhone broke, over a year ago, she decided it was time to switch to a device that allowed her to stay in touch with others while minimising distractions.

Bea, who has two young children, opted for a Nokia 2720 Flip – a phone that styles itself as a “a modern twist on the classic flip phone”. She made her choice after reading research into the impact of screen use on children. “I found myself breaking all the rules I had around them, browsing and scrolling,” she said. “A line had been crossed – I didn’t want them to think this is a normal way to spend your life, even if it’s common.”

Learning more about the ways that smartphones and social media had been designed to be addictive was another trigger. “I felt a wave of anger that these people got to make decisions about how I spend my life every day,” she said.

Almost two decades after the first iPhone was released, a trend for lower tech devices appears to be taking shape, with a growing minority swapping their smartphones for “dumb phones” – or, perhaps in Bea’s case, dumber phones. “I went for this one because it has WhatsApp – it’s too complicated to live life without it,” she said.

With new models such as the Boring Phone, the trend is partly being fuelled by young people’s suspicion of the data- and attention-harvesting tech they have grown up with, as well as a bid to live more offline. And while smartphones are the obvious target for this trend, the “newtro” (a portmanteau of “new” and “retro”) movement is heralding a revival of analogue media, including cassettes and fanzines, against the backdrop of the enduring, and much-heralded, vinyl boom.

While Jess Perriam, 39, had become exhausted by her Instagram feed, she knew she wanted to keep a window into the lives of others. So she turned to Postcrossing, a site that connects people who want to send and receive postcards from strangers around the world. “I still wanted to have that connection with people and learn more about different cultures, but not necessarily while being aggressively marketed at,” she said, adding that she receives “stacks of reading recommendations” through the post.

The community has more than 800,000 members across 207 countries, with 77 million postcards received since it launched in 2005. While its most rapid growth happened in the early 2010s, it lasted through the pandemic and 400,000 cards are posted each month.

While the hobby is reasonably affordable in Australia, where Perriam lives, she notes that the cost of stamps has become prohibitively expensive in other countries she has visited. As well as writing to people she has never met, she also corresponds with an old friend in the US. When she sits down with a cup of coffee, Perriam feels she can carry out a considered conversation. “It forces me to sit down and think, what do I want to communicate to my friend – what are the headlines, what are the things she’d want to hear about?”

The pair began this correspondence years ago, when Perriam’s friend was living in west Africa. “You feel like you can really catch someone up – she was able to share bits and pieces of her daily life in Benin. Now I have a collection of letters which are a recollection of her time [there], and there’s someone who really understood her.

“There’s something really special about the physical evidence of our lives in each other’s letters,” Perriam added. “[There is] material evidence of a friendship to look back on – we’ve built a history that’s really tangible.”

Touch and other physical senses are also important to David Sax, the author of The Revenge of Analog. “We are haptic,” he said. “One of the benefits of analogue is its tactility – things you can use and touch and taste and feel. There was this assumption that we would be living in a digital future … The experience of the pandemic showed us one truth we kind of downplayed: we have bodies that exist in the physical world and need to go places and touch things. We desire more of the world than what’s available on 20cm of glass.”

Sax said the appeal of analogue was here to stay, pointing to vinyl, sales of film cameras and the endurance of paper books, but also to the post-pandemic rise in in-person experiences, such as live music events and travel. But he doesn’t see it as a backlash against the encroachment of tech in our daily lives; he says most people who are embracing the low-tech movement are also using new digital technology where it is convenient and effective. Instead, it’s “a counterbalance to this thing that has become the default mode for many things in life”.

Rather than being a purely nostalgic reflex, those reaching for film over their smartphone camera are often not of the generation that grew up using analogue technology, Sax noted. “The driving market of the Fujifilm Instax [instant camera] is teens. The No 1 records selling are by Taylor Swift,” he said. “It’s younger generations who are driving the change – those older generations who grew up with analogue have nostalgia, but are often enthralled in the magic of digital tech.”

For Andreas Nygren, a 25-year-old student in Tallinn, the physical nature of film is partly what draws him to it over digital photography. “With analogue, you have to engage with what’s happening much more closely – you’re much more in touch with the environment and the light,” Nygren said.

Nygren has also experimented with ditching social media and a smartphone altogether, but has found it difficult to stay in touch with friends and for university projects. “When you’re not active and messaging, people just forget about you and you don’t get invited to things,” he said. Instead, he’s trying to swerve most social media platforms in favour of SMS messaging and WhatsApp. “It’s about the intentionality – you’re not just tapping and scrolling, you’re thinking about saying something to a specific person.”

Over time, he observed how an over-reliance on digital technology had made him feel distant from the physical world. “It reduces the vibrancy of life and makes you feel like you’re floating around in a daze. It’s like being stuck in a cave watching wall of shadows, instead of being out in the world. The analogue [trend] is really just an effort to counteract that, and take hold of embodied reality again.”