I got a flip phone and tried to get by without my smartphone

by Seth Lavin

About three months ago, I bought a flip phone and turned off my smartphone for good.

I am part of a trend — interest in old-fashioned flip phones is up — but I don’t feel trendy. When I flip my phone open in a hallway of the middle school where I’m the principal, one student literally makes the sign of the cross. Another just says, “Oh, no.”

Another asks, “Why did you put yourself on punishment?” But I do not feel punished. I feel free.

Kids and their phones are different — closer — since COVID. That first year back after the pandemic, one child clocked 17 hours of screen time in a single day. Another tried to have UberEats delivered to a classroom. Teachers said they could sense kids’ phones distracting them from inside their pockets.

We banned phones outright, equipping classrooms with lockboxes that the kids call “cellphone prisons.” It’s not perfect, but it’s better. A teacher said, “It’s like we have the children back.”

At school, yes, but what about everywhere else? Chicago’s Compass Health Center has a Child Screen Dependence Program to help children “learn to tolerate periods of screen separation.” A Pennsylvania phone addiction camp promises to help young people “rediscover who they really are.”

And what about adults? Ninety-five percent of young adults now keep their phones nearby every waking hour, according to a Gallup survey; 92% do when they sleep. We look at our phones an average of 352 times a day, according to one recent survey, almost four times more often than before COVID.

We want children off their phones because we want them to be present, but children need our presence, too. When we are on our phones, we are somewhere else. As the title of one study notes, “The Mere Presence of One’s Own Smartphone Reduces Available Cognitive Capacity.”

Our after-school director told me, “I just want parents to be off their phones at pickup. I just want them to look up for that one moment when their kids first see them.”

I averaged six hours of screen time a day on my smartphone. My 12-year-old son said, “I called your name three times and you didn’t hear me.” My 10-year-old son said, “I can tell you are looking at your phone by the sound of your voice.”

I made my screen gray. I deleted social media. I bought a lockbox and said I would keep my phone there. I didn’t.

When they were little, my sons loved to play a game in which they would hide under the covers while I wondered aloud, “Where is he?” Then they would throw off the blankets and yell, “Here I am! I was here the whole time.”

How much of their lives have I missed while looking at my screen?

Every year, I see kids get phones and disappear into them. I don’t want that to happen to mine. I don’t want that to have happened to me.

So I quit. And now I have this flip phone.

What I don’t have is Facetime or Instagram. I can’t use Grubhub or Lyft or the Starbucks Mobile App. I don’t even have a browser.

I drove to a student’s quinceañera, and I had to print out directions as if it were 2002.

My 8-year-old niece poked at my screen with her finger, which does nothing, and looked at me with such pity. “You have the most boring phone of all time,” she said.

I can still make calls, though people are startled to get one. I can still text. And I can still see your pictures, though I can “heart” them only in my heart.

The magic of smartphones is that they eliminate friction: touchscreens, auto-playing videos, endless scrolling. My phone isn’t smooth. That breaks the spell.

Turning off my smartphone didn’t fix all my problems. But I do notice my brain moving more deliberately, shifting less abruptly between moods. I am bored more, sure — the days feel longer — but I am deciding that’s a good thing. And I am still connected to the people I love; they just can’t text me TikToks.

It’s hard to imagine a revolution against the smartphone, though there are glimmers of resistance. The attorneys general of California and 32 other states are suing Meta, alleging that its Facebook and Instagram platforms have addicted children to something harmful. Twelve percent of adults recently told Gallup that their smartphones make life worse, up from 6% in 2015.

But I’m not doing this to change the culture. I’m doing this because I don’t want my sons to remember me lost in my phone.

Last month, we went to buy their mom a birthday present. We took a bus across the city as the sun went down. It was nearing wintertime and there were lights in the trees. We talked the whole way.

In the store, one of them got turned around and called out my name. “Here I am,” I said.

I was here the whole time.

Seth Lavin is a school principal in Chicago.