Are Gen Zers Ditching the Smartphone?


Generation Z has been heralded as the most technologically savvy bunch to ever grace the planet, “digital natives” who intuitively grasp the power of the web.

Business leaders are being told that Gen Zers tend to be early adopters of  new technologies and that they should factor this into their business plans. Marketers are told to direct their strategies toward teenagers who are constantly online. Church leaders have been instructed to understand and  incorporate new technologies to better connect with Gen Zers. Burlap has covered this here.

Gen Zers are said to be totally immersed in the internet, eager to engage through technology, and this must be taken into account.

But what would it mean if some Gen Zers began setting aside their pocket-sized portals to the worldwide web, the smartphone, and traded their mini-computers for an “archaic” version of cellular technology, the flip phone?

The New York Post reports this is exactly what has been happening. The Post’s headline in compelling and enticing: “Generation Z is Scrapping Smartphones for Flip Phones.”

The Post’s Hannah Frishberg argues Gen Zers are leaving behind th smartphone for the following reasons: “Despite the apparent ubiquity of smartphones...the high-tech rectangles’ global sales are plummeting. Research firm Gartner reported a 5.6 percent decline in year-over-year sales in February. Plus, mounting research suggests that smartphones are linked to a host of health issues, including anxiety, depression and trouble sleeping.”

Frishberg quotes several Gen Zers who have made the switch to the flip phone. Some were disturbed by what they saw as invasions of privacy, the addictive tendencies they observed among their peers (and themselves), and an attraction to the simplicity of the older devices. Those quoted had found that the design of the older phones was better suited to their needs.

But outside of the decline in smartphone sales, Frishberg does not quote research demonstrating Gen Zers are overwhelmingly abandoning the smartphone. My Google inquiries yielded a few trend pieces and no extended polling or research. The evidence is thin.

But I did find an article from March 2018 that ran in Vanity Fair. Maya Kosoff wrote about a group of Stanford students who were petitioning Apple to develop a simplified interface for the iPhone that was limited to essential functions like call, text, and GPS.

Kosoff wrote, “There is an obvious irony in Generation Z—kids too young to remember a time before the smartphone—pining for a halcyon era of flip phones, kick sliders, and retractable keyboards. Having known little else, however, they are perhaps best suited to lead the Luddite revolution against endless push notifications and invasive tracking.”

As I write this I’m sitting in a cafe, and I’m surrounded by several Gen Zers who are studying for final exams. I do not see a single flip phone. At the table next to me, two young ladies are typing away on their laptops. Both have their iPhones within reach.

I haven’t seen enough evidence to suggest Gen Zers are ditching their smartphones. But I do think Gen Zers are aware of the dangers of addictive technology, the invasion of privacy, and the diminishment in everyday personal interactions. It may be the case that Gen Zers are charmed by older technologies in the same way that some prefer listening to music on vinyl.

Even if Gen Zers are holding on to their smartphones, their concerns may nonetheless remain. Churches can name and address those concerns with wisdom. They can teach disciplines, or habits, that help Gen Zers exercise self-control in using their devices. They can encourage creation awareness and the practice of presence by inviting people to power down their phones and to get outside. Churches can also create spaces for conversation, face to face fellowship, that is absent and free of any pressure to relay the experience to a social media platform.

In other words, churches can remind us how to be human and to resist the temptation to mediate our experiences through technology. Some Gen Zers believe technology is causing them to miss something essential about reality. They want an encounter that can ground them and put them in touch with something, or someone, real.

Flip phones may present fewer distractions, but they are still a form of technology. Using tech wisely is one of the primary challenges of our digital age. It is also a challenge Christians can meet. Naming the temptations and pitfalls is a first step. The next is to equip Gen Zers with the wisdom they need to prosper.