I sat around a table with a group of fellow pastors, many of whom were older than me. As our meeting concluded, one of the men planned how he would follow up with us.
“Does everyone have a smartphone?” he asked. The others nodded in agreement; some of them had been taking notes on their phones as he spoke.
I sheepishly shook my head no. I pulled out my circa-2007 basic phone and waved it in the air.
“How is it that the youngest person here doesn’t have a smartphone?” he asked. I laughed, admitted that I was behind the times and shared my email address instead.
I am used to these surprised reactions. I get them all the time. I am one of a dying breed — a millennial without a smartphone. Since more than 97 percent of my peers use a smartphone, people like me are almost extinct.
To be clear, my reasons for not having a smartphone aren’t remarkable. I’m not engaged in some anti-technology crusade. (I manage a website.) Nor am I interested in getting off the grid. (I still use my basic cell phone for calls and texts.) My tardiness in adopting a smartphone involves a combination of budget, stubbornness and the fact that I get along fine without one.
In this piece, I won’t try to convince you to become a smartphone curmudgeon. I simply want to offer a portrait of what it’s like to carry a technological relic in my pocket. To be 10 years behind the trend. To be a millennial without a smartphone.
The Benefits of Life Without a Smartphone
I hear how hard it is to set boundaries with smartphones. Pastors, businessmen and educators tell me they wish that they could get rid of their smartphones; people always expect them to be on call via social media or email. They never can seem to get away.
I have a much easier time establishing such boundaries. I don’t feel the pull to check my phone every few minutes. I’m not distracted by social media during meals. I don’t hear notifications going off at inopportune moments. My lack of a smartphone makes it easier to have times where I’m not connected to the unnecessary urgency of emails and social media.
Again, I’m not completely off the grid. I still receive phone calls and texts. I do use social media and email on my laptop. But when I close my computer for the day, I’m done.
Another key benefit is that we have saved hundreds — if not thousands — of dollars over the years. Let’s face it: Smartphones are expensive. Data plans are costly. The phones themselves are pricey. The protective cases and other accessories aren’t cheap, either.
Without a smartphone, I only have a fraction of those expenses. As a result, I’m less worried when I drop my phone on the ground. It doesn’t bother me when my toddler covers it with drool. I use my basic phone until it dies, and then I shell out another $100 for a new one. Not having a smartphone certainly has its benefits.
The Drawbacks to Life Without a Smartphone
Whereas I benefit by not having a smartphone, I also deal with key drawbacks. First, I’ve discovered that there are times when it’s good to be connected. When I travel, it would be convenient to pull out a smartphone, look up directions, research restaurants or get travel help.
For example, I was recently driving to a meeting. Halfway there, I realized I didn’t know where the meeting location was. I had to pull over, call someone, ask them to look up the address, and I plugged it into my GPS. Needless to say, I arrived late.
Second, I miss out on helpful tools exclusively available on smartphones. I don’t have my full calendar at the tip of my fingers. I’m unable to listen to podcasts or audiobooks on the go. I can’t summon a ride via Uber or Lyft when traveling. I don’t have a calorie-counting app to help me watch my diet.
Third, communication is more difficult. I get error messages when friends try to send me a text with emoji’s or videos. I rarely receive group texts. And the pictures I receive are too small to look at; I forward them to my email to see them in a decent size.
So my lack of a smartphone has its drawbacks. Smartphones can be helpful tools.
Lessons on a Life without a Smartphone
Being among the 3% of millennials without a smartphone has benefits and drawbacks. But most of all, I have learned a simple but important lesson: I don’t have to be a slave to technology.
We all feel a desire to adapt to what’s new. We want to fit in. We see everyone else with the latest gadgets, and we’re afraid of missing out. This unstated peer pressure can lead us to embrace new technologies uncritically — without thinking through the repercussions. We are slaves to the new.
But I’ve discovered that technology doesn’t have to enslave me. Technology is a want, not a need. And I’ve learned that it is possible to live a full, fulfilled life without having my Facebook account or Twitter feed at my fingertips.
A Smartphone-Free Life
My wife and I recently splurged for our anniversary. We ate an expensive four-course meal at a famous farm-to-table restaurant. We were wowed by each dish, relishing every bite and enjoying quiet conversation without the kids.
We glanced at the table beside us. A couple a few decades older than us told their waitress that it was their anniversary, too. But they reacted to their meal much differently. The wife snapped pictures of each plate and instantly shared them to Facebook. Their conversation centered exclusively on why she needed to retake a picture because it was too blurry, why he needed to smooth out his shirt for the next photo, who all had liked the pictures on Facebook, who hadn’t yet liked the pictures, what people had commented. This was how they celebrated their anniversary. They were physically present, but they were mentally far, far away.
There was nothing intrinsically wrong with how they enjoyed this meal. To each his own. And we certainly took a few pictures of the food with our camera. But I was struck at the different tone of their meal. Whether we believe it or nor, smartphones do change us.
Now, I probably will eventually adopt a smartphone. And that will be fine. But for now, I’ll relish these opportunities to have a quiet, delicious meal with no distractions, no notifications and no smartphone. I’ll embrace my smartphone-free life.
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