Brett Arends's ROI: Why I’ve dumped my smartphone

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I stopped by my local coffee shop the other morning, and while I was standing at the counter waiting for my costa latte I caught another one of those TV commercials for “senior” cellphones with “senior” plans—apparently for “as low as $ 25 a month,” I guess if Grandma and Grandpa just want voice and text. The “senior” cellphones in question are flip phones, like we had back in olden days.

And I was thinking: What a rip off.

If any readers want a cheap cellular plan, check out the likes of Red Pocket, Ultra Mobile or US Mobile, and you can get a plan for as little as $ 8 a month—and that includes 1 gigabyte of data. Neither you, nor your parents, nor grandparents, nor anyone else should be paying $ 25 a month for a basic plan.

Companies like Red Pocket don’t operate their own networks—they lease airtime on the networks operated by the big name-brand mobile companies, and they sell the airtime cheap. It’s a standard off-brand retail strategy by the big operators: They get to vacuum up nickels from tightwads like me, without having to cut prices for the people who insist on paying full retail in the store.

I’ve used all three of those operators, by the way. They’re all absolutely fine. I had no problems with reception, voice quality or data speeds. If T Mobile or AT&T T, +0.33% or Verizon VZ, +0.37% works in your area, then the relevant resellers will work as well.

But this isn’t the only thing about those commercials I have a beef with.

Are these “senior” cellphones only for people old enough to get Medicare, or can any of us get one?

I don’t mind telling you I hate carrying a smartphone with me, even though—of course—I freely admit they are useful. Since 2008, a year after the late Steve Jobs launched his first iPhone  AAPL, -2.46%  on an unsuspecting world, I’ve had a theory. It’s that human intelligence, plus the intelligence of our “smart” phones, adds up to a mathematical constant.

The equation reads: i = h + p where h stands for the level of brain activity of someone schlepping down the road with their eyes glued to their phone, lest they miss a paid-for Instagram post by an “influencer” they don’t know, and stands for the trillion-dollar whiz-bang circuitry in their latest phone.

As the phones have gotten “smarter,” people have gotten dumber. Don’t believe me? Consider the trajectory of the world since 2007 and tell me I’m wrong.

As it happens, science writer Catherine Price came to Barron’s and MarketWatch last week to talk about her new book, “The Power of Fun,” and Price’s previous book, “How To Break Up With Your iPhone,” was about all the scientific research showing how our smartphone addiction is hurting us.

“I’m probably more concerned now than I was when the book came out in 2011,” she tells me. Our smartphones and the way we use them constantly are “affecting everything, from our productivity and creativity to our attention spans, relationships, and mental and physical health.” The constant distraction raises our stress hormone levels, and can even interfere with our creation of long-term memories.

But you don’t have to be a top endocrinologist or medical expert to see this. Just look around.

Meanwhile, the people who seem to use their smartphones in the least harmful way are seniors. Every retiree I know uses their phone to keep in touch with real friends and their relatives, especially children and grandchildren far away. It’s the under 65 crowd who are going crazy.

Even before talking to Price I’d been looking for a “dumb phone” so I could leave my wretched smartphone in my office desk, to be used sparingly. Unfortunately, you can’t just use a classic phone from the 2000s—you need one that runs on the 4G, LTE technology that the networks use today.

I am clearly not alone.

Two years ago I wrote about the guys behind the “Light Phone II,” a new type of phone that is designed to free you from smartphone addiction. It has an eInk screen, and a few useful “tools” such as podcasts and directions, but no addictive apps. It will never have social media or email, the makers tell me.

It’s $ 300. And guess what? It’s sold out. You can’t get them. As soon as they get another batch in stock it sells out. The next batch arrives in November.  

There aren’t many basic dumb phones that run on 4G and offer high-definition Voice over LTE (Not yet, anyway). I liked the latest Alcatel flip phone, Go Flip V, which can be bought for about $ 60 on eBay. (You have to check to make sure you’re getting the one that will work on your network.) But in the end, I went for this phone from a Chinese company called Tianhoo. I’ve found it quick and easy to use, and the call quality is good. It’s pretty hefty: Where are the stylish slender dumb phones of yesteryear? On the positive side, though, is that it comes in a bright, even alarming, yellow.

As a child of the 1980s, I can appreciate that kind of ironic statement. It also means I’m less likely to lose it.