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How I outraged friends and family: By not having a smartphone

Phones create toxic FOMO and the illusion of connection. Why does anyone have one?

photo illustration of a smartphone with a person's hand reaching out of the screen, which has a picture of water on it.Images from Adobe Stock/Globe staff photo illustration

“I kid you not. This guy is walking through the parking lot reading a [expletive] newspaper.”

I looked up from the business section as a driver, cradling his cellphone, swerved around me. My transgression was not reading the newspaper while walking; rather, I was reading it in print instead of the proper way to be distracted, on a smartphone. The reason was simple: I didn’t have one.

In the three decades between the birth of the smartphone in 1992 (remember the IBM Simon Personal Communicator?) and 2022, I never owned one. Oh, I had the occasional flip phone stowed away in the glove compartment for the emergencies that friends swear is the real reason nobody should be without a mobile device, but I never swiped right, left, or sent a text.

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Over the years, I was constantly surprised by the strength of the reactions, both negative and positive, to this revelation. Friends and family were positively apoplectic, accusing me of selfishness for being so difficult to reach.

Strangers and acquaintances were usually more curious. Some even offered praise and confessed they wished they could do the same, as if I was advocating for life off the grid. This response reminded me of the admiration I used to hear for the parents who rid their homes of televisions so that their kids would presumably be bored enough to read, play outdoors, and pick organic vegetables. Thankfully, mine were only too happy to accept help from the great electronic baby sitter.

The truth is, I’m neither an evangelist for a smartphone-free lifestyle nor have I ever felt guilty for choosing it. So, when an editor recently wrote to me, “I’m honestly curious how you get through life without one,” I thought about all of the ways I see people using theirs and realized that whether or not we choose to embrace them, we should do so mindfully.

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So what are the few of us who resist smartphones missing out on? Entertainment value is a big one. But I’m not a gamer, and if there’s a television program or movie I want to watch, I’d rather wait to view it on a 50-inch screen in the living room. Then there’s texting — the one feature I might actually use — but I’m still not convinced it’s superior to sending an e-mail from my laptop or using a flip phone or a landline to simply make a call.

The most compelling feature I see in cellphones is the camera. Having a phone camera in your pocket can be a form of survival for those who routinely get pulled over for driving while Black — and as Darnella Frazier in the George Floyd case and so many other responsible bystanders have demonstrated, it can be a tool for an ally.

But while I have no trouble with the idea of carrying an electronic device, unless I am compelled to wear one on my ankle, I’ve always preferred not to be tethered to it.

When I search (on my laptop) the phrase “things people would rather give up than their cellphone,” some of the most common responses among nearly 3.5 billion results include “shampooing,” “vacations,” “their dogs,” and “their significant others.” Strikingly, in a study published earlier this year by Reviews.org, a company that tests products found in homes, 47 percent of Americans 18 and older described their relationship with their smartphone as an addiction.

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Though it’s a phrase that’s often used casually, smartphone addiction has serious implications. Dr. Anna Lembke, a professor of psychiatry at the Stanford School of Medicine, has worked with adults she says suffer from depression in large part because of their smartphone habits. And while most smartphone users don’t become addicted to them, the bigger problem, she believes, is that the devices create the expectation they will bring people closer together.

“The illusion of connectedness that smartphones create is just that — an illusion,” Lembke says. “Smartphones have the paradoxical effect of increasing FOMO.” That fear of missing out can be “potentially debilitating and even life-threatening for vulnerable individuals.” For some, she adds, simply putting away their phone for a month can markedly improve symptoms.

(One might assume that those who become addicted to their phone are more likely to have an addictive personality, but, Lembke says, “In my experience, many people who are addicted to digital drugs do not use other types of drugs.”)

Despite the risks, according to a 2021 Pew Research Center survey, just 3 percent of Americans don’t own a cellphone — and I have yet to meet one of them.

For better or worse, the pressure to conform is considerable. So, this year, I ordered my first smartphone and, for at least 24 hours, I plan to pull it out of the glove compartment to see what I might be missing. For the other 97 percent, I would propose trying this experiment in reverse, to see what they might be missing with a smartphone.

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Meanwhile, as I slog through the 146-page manual (on my desktop computer, naturally), knowing that I could probably learn Urdu faster than all of the functions on this “user-friendly” device, I’m wondering how smart this decision really was — and I haven’t canceled my print subscription yet.


Andy Levinsky is a frequent contributor to the Globe Magazine. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.