Flip phones to digital cameras, Gen Z's love of retro gadgets is smarter than you realize

With a lifetime full of gadgets and social pressures from their online presence, some Gen Zers are ditching their tech. Here's why.
Written by Jada Jones, Associate Editor
Image: Getty Images

There have been plenty of stories recently about how Gen Zers have taken an interest in retro tech, ditching their smartphones for single-purpose devices such as point-and-shoot digital cameras and flip phones. A generation that had a childhood filled with the screens of computers and smartphones is apparently ditching modern technology for the devices of the early 2000s. So, what's going on?

It's not simply a refusal to embrace new technologies; many Gen Zers still upgrade their smartphones every year. What seems to be happening right now is an intentional relinquishing of contrived spontaneity, social media overindulgence, and an attempt to reclaim some of the time spent hunched over a screen.

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So, Gen Z is investing in Y2K-era technology, such as 2009's Nikon Coolpix, a 12.1-megapixel digital camera, or 2006's hot pink Razr V3. They'll still hold onto their smartphones, but will opt to leave them at home on a night out and tote a flip phone for a few hours. 

It's how Gen Z is unplugging -- albeit -- temporarily.

Smartphones offer Gen Z an easy hit of dopamine, a quick fix for a bored mind, or an easy way out of social interaction. Whether scrolling on social media, playing a downloaded game, or checking the time to avoid eye contact, smartphones give Gen Zers a sense of comfort. 

Early versions of social media apps were all about staying in touch with distant friends and family. Now, for many people, these places are pits of misinformation, breeding grounds for trolls -- and a catalog of carefully curated posts to show how perfect someone else's life is. 

From wars to catastrophic natural disasters to wide-scale social unrest, Gen Zers are constantly swamped with bad news. And often, they feel responsible for making a positive change in the world. Creating petitions, boosting GoFundMes, and bringing awareness to social and political issues are the crux of Gen Z's characteristics

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After a while, dealing with that barrage of information and demands becomes exhausting and potentially detrimental to one's mental health. Some Gen Zers might feel the urge to put their phones down and take a break. But that break never lasts very long.

There are ways for smartphone users to quiet down the chaos behind the glass display, but 'Do Not Disturb' and 'Focus' settings don't alleviate Gen Z's fundamental problem of being chronically online

Gen Z is coping with these issues by returning to retro tech, especially say those born between around 1997 and 2003, who still fondly remember their parents' flip phones, camcorders, and other early 2000s electronics.

This age group also grew up alongside technology; as they matured, so did the devices. Many Gen Zers in this group didn't get their first iPhone until they were 15, and it was an iPhone 3G. Before that, many had an LG Slider or a Blackberry Curve.

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On the other hand, most younger Gen Zers received a smartphone as young as 10 years old. They were born into the age of smartphones and predatory social media algorithms. They can't remember a time before modern iPhones, and certainly can't imagine a life without them. 

I'd suggest Gen Zers who are in their 20s and Gen Zers who are tweens and teenagers have very different relationships with technology. And older Gen Zers are the primary group looking toward their legacy tech to lighten the digital load.

Paul Greenwood, head of research and insight at We Are Social, says these older Gen Zers are right on time. He told the BBC that when young people reach their 20s, they long for the "cultural touchstones of their youth." 

I wrote about Sony's newest iteration of its famous Walkman music player a few weeks ago. In that article, I said that Gen Zers would consider buying the device because it fits into a retro aesthetic many try to achieve. 

I also mentioned that older generations might be interested in the device because of the nostalgic feelings the Walkman could invoke in the children of the 60s, 70s, and 80s. But from the feedback I received on that article, it seems that older people don't miss their Walkman enough to purchase a modernized -- and much more expensive -- version of it. 

But the reasons why I thought Gen Z would be intrigued by a digital Walkman didn't resonate with the older readers of the article. They said they have no problem abstaining from social media while listening to music. And they seem to enjoy the capabilities of current music-streaming services when used with their smartphone's connectivity.

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Perhaps, the factors fueling the mass unplugging I described in the Walkman article -- and in this piece -- are unique to Gen Z. Here's the best way I can relate Gen Z's media overconsumption to Gen X: smartphones and social are to Gen Z what television and the 24-hour news cycle was to Gen X -- but worse.

Maybe older people might not feel the effects of doom-scrolling quite so intensely or understand how having access to every piece of information in existence can take a massive toll on one's mental health? And maybe they don't realize how an alarming amount of Gen Zers experience loneliness, social isolation, cyberbullying, disrupted sleep patterns, and a legitimate addiction to their smartphones, all due to the ubiquity of smartphones and social media?

With all that being said, I think it's commendable that some Gen Zers recognize that their tech over-use is damaging. Being glued to devices is a habit many young people are chastised for and, quite frankly, can even be insecure about.

So, more power to you, Gen Z. We believe in you.


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