Smartphones have become a staple in the lives of two thirds of Americans. They have a myriad of uses — from finding directions to online banking to checking email to stalking exes.
For many, smartphones are a crucial tool for staying connected. But the beauty of a smartphone-free life can outweigh the convenience of being constantly plugged in.
I’ve worked in photojournalism for the past three years and have traveled internationally by myself — all without the help of a smartphone. I don’t send Snapchats or post Instagrams or use Google Maps for directions. I’ve gotten lost countless times and have gone days without checking email or Facebook. But despite the occasional inconvenience of navigating through the world without the help of the Internet, my smartphone-free life has given me the confidence to rely on my own skills and the help of others to survive.
Last year, I spent a semester in Australia and was surrounded by fellow Americans who documented their adventures on Facebook and Instagram. We traveled to Byron Bay for a weekend and spent one morning quarry jumping. I was scaling down the side of the rock face, preparing to jump into the dark water, when a couple across the quarry called out a warning.
“You know, there are metal rods sticking up from the bottom of the quarry! I wouldn’t jump if I were you!”
I immediately scrambled back up the cliff and never jumped. I was disappointed, and my friends tried to comfort me by saying they got pictures of me on the cliff so at least it looked like I jumped. I explained that I cared more about actually jumping than whether or not it looked like I jumped.
I witnessed many conversations like this during my time abroad — people wanted to hold koala bears for the photo proof and to be able to say they did it. They cared more about the photographic evidence and the bragging rights than they did about the actual experience. As a photographer and a journalist, I understood where they were coming from — capturing an experience through a photograph leaves you with a physical memory you’ll be able to revisit forever. But having a smartphone or a camera in hand when you’re somewhere you’ve never been before can take you out of that place rather than bring you closer to it. And memories are often stronger when they’re not impeded by distracting gadgets.
After my semester in Australia, I spent two weeks on a solo backpacking trip in New Zealand. I relied on paper maps and the help of locals to navigate my way around the country. I got lost on nearly a daily basis and had to talk to people in hostels, on the street and in coffee shops to find my way around the cities I was visiting.
According to the Pew Research Center, 74 percent of smartphone owners over the age of 18 use their phones for directions or to find information about their locations. While the convenience of Google Maps and Yelp! is appealing, reliance on these kinds of apps can be distracting. When you walk to a new restaurant with your eyes on a phone, rather than on your surroundings, you’ll likely get to your destination faster, but you’ll miss out on the experience of exploring somewhere new.
Although my antiquated forms of navigation and planning were time consuming and occasionally frustrating, I ended up meeting people from all over the world who had been in the country for years and could offer firsthand insights into the best attractions and hidden gems of New Zealand. I was also able to avoid racking up a crazy cell phone bill, which left me with more money for bus tickets, hostel rooms and beer.
In the same study by the Pew Research Center, 29 percent of cell phone owners admitted to feeling like they couldn’t live without their phones. But while smartphones offer a level of connectedness that’s unparalleled throughout history, they’re not necessary to survive.
And I bet that 29 percent could live without them.