What Justin Bieber, Ed Sheeran and other celebrities taught me about using my phone

It was mainly Justin Bieber who first opened my eyes to a new way of thinking about my phone. Look, Bieber doesn’t like phones. He ditched his a while ago and became an iPad guy. According to a 2021 Billboard article, he wakes up in the morning, picks up his tablet and contacts his management to see what’s going on that day. The idea was to “limit who can reach him.” This is something you often hear from phoneless celebrities: they’re not trying to disconnect from everyone, but they’re trying to get away from the feeling of being constantly tapped on the shoulder by all the calls, texts, and emails.

I’ve been obsessed with celebrities’ use of technology, or lack thereof, for years. In so many cases, it seems that once you become famous enough – with millions of people hanging on your every word, millions of others talking about you all the time, and countless people in your life looking for your time, energy and money – the only sensible way to manage all this is to separate as much as possible. So many celebrities throw away their phones, disconnect from their social media and log out completely. Everyone from Tom Cruise to Elton John to Sarah Jessica Parker to Michael Cera to Dolly Parton to George Clooney has extolled the virtues of a phone-free life. The internet is practically all about A-list celebrities, and often they don’t even know it.

For most of us, it’s a fantasy to throw away our phones and go into the woods or whatever. We don’t have managers, personal assistants and accountants to handle all our phone calls; we have family members and bosses who need to reach us. Plus, phones are useful, cool and fun! Even some of these celebrities eventually go back — a few recent photos of Bieber indicate he may be a phone user again. But I’m still looking for lessons from the celebrities and wondering what they’ve discovered about the Internet and themselves by disconnecting a little. I’m also looking for tips to do the same. And I think I may have understood.

A few years ago, Ed Sheeran shared a strategy very similar to Bieber’s. He hasn’t had a phone since 2015, he told Hodinkee, because “a phone really made me feel overwhelmed and sad.” Not having a phone had not diminished his contact with the world, Sheeran said, but merely – and that was the point. “I have emails from friends and emails from people, and every few days I sit down and open my laptop, and I answer 10 emails at a time,” he said. ‘I send them in, close my laptop and then that’s it. And then I go on with my life, and I don’t feel overwhelmed by it.”

Simon Cowell told it Entertainment tonight in 2020 that he had also traded his phone for an iPad. “It means you don’t wake up to 50 text messages that you can’t respond to,” he said at the time. Shailene Woodley shared another version of the same strategy with Jimmy Kimmel: She still had an iPhone, but she didn’t have a data plan. If she wanted to do something, she had to go somewhere with Wi-Fi. (She actually reverse-engineered an iPod touch, which Apple should absolutely bring back, please and thank you.)

Read and watch enough celebrity interviews, and the lesson becomes clear: that’s the most powerful and connected device in your life should not have to are always within reach. All that does is invite distraction and it makes it too easy to disconnect from your life every time you’re bored, sad, or curious, even for a second. Anything you can do to move that stuff a little further away and make it a little harder to get to is a small victory over the always-on appeal of your devices.

It sounds a bit like I’m advocating for the return of the 1990s, when the computer was a giant box that sat in a central room of your house and the only way to use it was to go to it. And to some extent, so am I! I’m becoming increasingly convinced that my primary computer should be a device that I use with purpose, sit down in front of, operate, and take myself away from until next time. Whether it’s a laptop on a desk or an iPad on your bedside table, your computer should have a place just like it is a device. And if you’re not in that place, you’re somewhere else. The computer doesn’t come along.

Whether it’s a laptop on a desk or an iPad on your bedside table, your computer should have a place just like it is a device

Over the past few weeks, as an experiment, I’ve been moving as many apps as possible — the obviously distracting social media stuff, but also anything I can live without from minute to minute — from my phone to my tablet to my laptop. All my social media apps are now on my iPad. Banking apps, streaming services and most of my games are all banned from my phone now. If I even want to watch TikTok, I have to get up from the couch and find my tablet.

So far it’s been great. I realize how much of a crutch my phone has actually become: I would open TikTok to keep me company on the walk to the kitchen or scroll through Threads while I waited for the microwave to finish. I’m not sure if I’m doing all of these things less in total, but at least I’m doing them on purpose. I’ve turned wasting time into a purposeful activity: I sit in my scrolling chair and scroll away, then I get up and the scrolling stops. And best of all, when I leave the house, there’s no scrolling at all.

I think I finally understand what Christopher Nolan meant, in an interview with People a few years ago: “I’m easily distracted, so I don’t want to have to access the Internet every time I’m bored.” Last year in conversation with The Hollywood Reporter, he said he still doesn’t have a phone — although he sometimes buys a burner, which is a really cool phone strategy — but he doesn’t think he’s a Luddite. “I think technology and what it can provide is amazing,” he said. “My personal choice is about the extent to which I am involved. It’s about the level of distraction.” (Nolan also famously refuses to use email, but that’s a bridge too far for me.)

There’s always been talk in the tech world about removing friction: companies’ obsessive desire to make everything easier, faster, fewer clicks and fewer chances to decide not to click that ad or buy that thing or like that post or upload that photo. All the tech-free celebrities seem to be looking for is a little more friction. It should be a little harder for someone to distract me while I’m eating with my wife or hanging out with my kid. I would have to think, “I want to watch TikTok right now,” and then walk around my living room before I can actually scroll through TikTok.

It is not about abandoning technology, but about deliberately applying technology.

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