The Rise Of “Dumb” Phones In A Smart Phone World

With smartphones becoming the norm more and more as the last decade or so went by, a select few still held onto the simplicity and the initially intended purpose of a phone: to make calls, and send messages. “Despite being ‘always-on’ (Gen Z spend approximately 106 full days on their phone each year), young people are tired when it comes to the digital world,” Ruby Soave, Head of Influencer Marketing at Pion explains.

“Why is this? Our research indicates that younger consumers are frustrated by a lack of authenticity and fun online. Which is why we’re seeing trends like ‘dumb’ phones (phones with no access to the internet) and digital cameras making a comeback,” Soave continues.

What Is A ‘Dumb’ Phone?

‘Dumb’ phones are what we would consider the opposite of “smart” phones, which, refers to the older generation of phones we came from before the BlackBerry and iPhone eras.

“A dumb phone (feature phone) is a simple device used for talking and texting, the most iconic example being the Nokia 3310 which still ranks as one of the best-selling phones of all time,” explains Ben Wood, Chief Analyst at CCS Insight.

Smartphone Users Switching To ‘Dumb’ Phones

There are people who owned smartphones and then, made the decision to switch back to ‘dumb’ phones. This is due to several reasons, like digital detoxing. Ed Johnson, CEO and Co-Founder of PushFar, shares his first-hand experience on making the switch:

“In summer of 2022, I took some time away from my desk and worked and lived in Umbria, surrounded by outstanding scenery, which should have held my attention, however I still couldn’t part with my phone.

“This was the final straw to start a digital detox, deleting social media apps and investing in a dumb phone for weekends and holidays, allowing me to live in the here and now.”

Why Did Smartphone Users Switch To ‘Dumb’ Phones?

Ben Wood shares his view on why users make the switch, saying, “The heightened concerns about excessive smartphone usage combined with the endless deluge of notifications and the other problems smartphones bring have given rise to a “digital detox” movement. This promotes efforts to reduce distractions from your life by using simpler technology. And for smartphone users, switching to a feature phone is one way to achieve this.

“Younger users who fall into the generation Z demographic — currently aged between 12 and 27 — are far more aware of mental health, digital addiction and fatigue than older generations, and are therefore more interested in alternatives to smartphones.

“Additionally, many millennials — currently aged between 28 and 43 — are becoming parents for the first time, and having grown up surrounded by technology they have a deeper understanding of the problems related to social media and other online services. On this basis, they are more interested in alternatives to smartphones for their children.”

Can You Turn Your Smartphone To A ‘Dumb’ Phone?

Why would users want to turn their phones into a ‘dumb’ phone, instead of just buying one? Most of our everyday transactions, tasks, and even careers rely on being connected.

We’ve seen WhatsApp become the primary communication tool for businesses around the world, and so this might be difficult without a smartphone. “Feature phones still allow users to keep in touch through voice and text, and some also have rudimentary Internet access,” comments Wood. “However, they come with compromises in the form of a fundamental camera and lack access to useful apps for services such as banking and travel.

“Some of these shortcomings will be addressed in feature phones currently being developed as manufacturers start to understand which capabilities add significant value without compromising the overall experience. Features such as better mapping, a digital wallet and a better camera will make the devices more attractive without exposing users to excessive engagement with social media and messaging applications.

“It is unrealistic to think that feature phones alone can address all the concerns about children using mobile devices. As they grow older there is an expectation that they will own a smartphone, particularly as they transition to secondary school. Lacking one can leave them excluded from their peer groups. On this basis, the responsible use of smartphones is an important consideration.”

Turn iPhone Into A ‘Dumb’ Phone

If you’re wondering how you can turn your iPhone into a ‘dumb’ phone, you can take advantage of iOS 17’s new feature, Assistive Access, which simplifies the interface and reduces distractions. This feature is especially designed to make the iPhone more accessible for people who have cognitive disabilities, but anyone can use it to create a more focused and less cluttered phone experience.

To use Assistive Access, start by selecting which apps appear on your home screen and deciding how they should be displayed—either as large icons in a grid or in a simplified list.

Assistive Access also changes how you interact with your iPhone by prioritising visual communication tools over text. One way you can do this is with an emoji-only keyboard for sending messages, which shortens the typing process and adds a fun twist to everyday interactions.

Turn Your Android To A ‘Dumb’ Phone

The process is a lot easier for Androids because its available on most operating systems. Simply put your phone in Power Saving mode and pick the apps you’d like access to. Usually with this mode, there’s only a few apps you’re able to use- the essentials.

The Possible Impact ‘Dumb’ Phones Have On The Environment

James Murdock, co-founder of circular technology company Alchemy explains his perspective: “Devices that perform the best in the second-hand market are aspirational – they need the brand and functionality that people still want to buy a good few years after they’ve come out.

“Generally, cheaper models don’t work for the secondary market because they are not aspirational, and therefore, it’s not economically viable to refurbish and remarket it. Apple and Samsung devices have the longest life span in this respect.

“The economics run out for iPhones before the tech does, typically at about eight years or ‘generations’ back. At that point, they are recycled, and relatively valuable metals are recovered. Leading Samsung devices are beyond economical repair a little earlier, perhaps five years.

“I’d wager that dumb phones aren’t great candidates for the circular or refurbished market because they aren’t aspirational enough. Instead, I’d recommend getting a slightly older, refurbished device that you can still put controls on to limit screen time. Even better, use a device you already have to do this!

“At Alchemy, we’ve recently refurbished our six millionth device, so higher spec models are still selling well. Anyone who wants this sort of phone as their device will likely still need a smartphone for work and general connectivity. If they opt for a second device, they should consider their carbon footprint and opt for a refurbished one.”

Will We Start To See A Rise In ‘Dumb’ Phones?

CSS Insight predicts there will be about 400,000 ‘dumb’ phone sales this year, which is relatively high in our smartphone world. This could be an opportunity for brands to bring designs and colours that appeal to younger generations.

Although the rise may hurt the refurbished market, on the larger scale of things, less energy will be used to produce new feature phones over smartphones that require more resources and energy consumption when newer models come out.