Vitaminwater's #nophoneforayear contest

Back in the before times, Vitaminwater invited applicants to a contest to go a full year without a smartphone or tablet. It was partly in response to rising concerns over the effect of all those alerts on our brains.

Over 100,000 people clamored for the chance, but author Elana A. Mugdan’s entry stood out with an amusing video, and in February 2019 the company took away her iPhone 5s and handed her a Kyocera flip phone.

On day 5 she was on The Today Show. Eight months in, she was explaining it to CNN:

Living without a smartphone hasn’t been easy

Mugdan says she was happy to accept the challenge, but immediately faced unexpected difficulties.

“Once, I almost got stranded in the SeaTac airport because the phone number I’d written down was wrong, and I had no way of looking up the right one, no way of calling a cab or Uber, and no one in the state who could help me,” Mugdan said.

Another time, her car’s check engine light turned on while she was driving late at night in an unfamiliar area. Without internet access or her GPS app, Mugdan had no way to find out what the light meant or where to go for help. She didn’t even know how close she was to the nearest rest stop.

The challenge has impacted her social life. Because she can’t exchange photos and videos with friends or browse their social media profiles, Mugdan said she sometimes feels “disconnected.”

“Being out with folks who are constantly checking their phones and showing each other their phones and taking selfies really highlights just how addicted everyone is, and now I feel like an outsider looking in at something odd and a little unsettling,” she said.

Still, she’s never going back

Despite some frustration and difficulties, Mugdan says giving up her smartphone has been one of the best decisions she’s ever made and the key to her productivity.

Since taking up the challenge, she has made significant progress in her “The Shadow War Saga” book series — recording an audio version of her first book, completing and publishing her second, and finalizing the edits on her third.

Mugdan is so impressed with her smartphone-free life that she plans to continue living without one long after the “Scroll Free for a Year” challenge ends.

“I’ve decided that I will never go back to smartphone use once the one-year contest is up,” she said.

“I don’t think I can be trusted with the technology — if I have access to a smartphone, I suspect I’ll go right back to abusing it, wasting time, staying up all hours of the night on it, and getting addicted to social media, and I really don’t want to go back to all that.”

On February 28 of this year the contest was done. Elana passed a lie detector test confirming she’d not used a smartphone for the entire year and she won the $100,000.

Except that was February 28 of 2020, just two days after the CDC confirmed community transition of COVID-19 in the US and not long before most of us would go into lockdown. I can’t help but see parallels between the communication quarantine Elana faced in her year without a smartphone and the social quarantine that Elana and so many of us entered shortly after the contest was completed.

Unrelated, and yet related from Pew Research Center: factsheets for Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, children using tech, and a look back at a decade shaped by mobile apps.