On Teenage Luddites

Back in 2019, when I was on tour for my book, Digital Minimalism, I chatted with more than a few parents. I was surprised by how many told me a similar story: their teenage children had become fed up with the shallowness of online life and decided, all on their own, to deactivate their social media accounts, and in some cases, abandon their smartphones altogether.

Ever since then, when an interviewer asks me about youth and technology addiction, I tend to adopt an optimistic tone.  “We’re approaching a moment in which not using these apps will be seen as the authentic, counter-cultural move,” I’ll explain. “We don’t need to convince teenagers to stop using their phones, we just need them to discover on their own just how uncool these online media conglomerates, with their creepy geek overlords, really are.”

According to a recent New York Times article that many of my readers sent me, we might finally be seeing evidence that this shift is beginning to pick up speed. The piece, written by Alex Vadukul, and titled “‘Luddite’ Teens Don’t Want Your Likes,” chronicles a group of Brooklyn high school students who formed what they call the Luddite Club, an informal organization dedicated to promoting “a lifestyle of self-literation from social media and technology.”

The article opens on a meeting of the Luddite Club being held on a dirt mound in a tucked-away corner of Prospect Park. According to Vadukul, some of the members drew in sketchpads or worked on watercolor painting. Books were common, with one particularly precocious teen reading “The Consolation of Philosophy,” while another was — honest-to-God — whittling a stick. Kurt Vonnegut is popular in the club. As is Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild.

The group’s founder, a 17-year-old named Logan Lane, said she had a hard time recruiting members. But the word seems to be spreading. The crew gathering in Prospect Park had heard of three different nearby high schools that were rumored to be starting their own chapters.  Lane showed up to her interview with Vadukul wearing quilted jeans she had sewed herself. She explained that once she was freed from her phone, she had started learning what life as a teenager in the city used to be like. She took to borrowing books from the library to read in the park. For a while, she fell in with a crew that taught her how to graffiti subway cars. Her parents were upset they didn’t always know where she was at night.

Here’s my carefully considered response to all of this: Yes. Very much, yes.

This is exactly what teenagers in Brooklyn should be doing: Reading books they don’t understand, getting into trouble, trying on intellectual identities without worrying about widespread scrutiny, sewing their own jeans, and yes, if they want, whittling sticks. How long did we really think young people would be willing to give up all of this wonderful mess in exchange for monotonously boosting the value of Meta stock?

There was, however, one passage in particular that gave me the most hope that a shift in teenagers’ relationships with their phones might actually be imminent. “My parents are so addicted,” said Lane. “My mom got on Twitter, and I’ve seen it tear her apart. But I guess I also like [being offline], because I get to feel a little superior to them.”

Zuckerberg is screwed.

23 thoughts on “On Teenage Luddites”

  1. You mention about embracing boredom to improve focus during extended period of deep work.
    I understand that when I am bored – I should not do typical things I do to kill time like – browse web, text friends, watch tv, eat even if i am not hungry etc.
    My question is – How to embrace boredom? What should I do when I am bored in order to embrace boredom?

    Thank you!

    • Just „watch“ the feeling! What does it feel like? Where is it felt in your body?
      What happens if i do not react to it but just let it be as it is for some time?
      Over time this will give you some freedom – and you dont have to waste your focus and energy with procrestination.
      Works with other feeling too by the way ?
      Hope that helps!

      • 19-year-old here. Felt the effects for a while but it took me reading Digital Minimalism (for a philosophy class) to get me to take the final steps! What a relief; I haven’t felt better in years. What a bomb ending though… Zuckerburg is screwed.

  2. I am 20. For the past four years, I have felt a constant urge to rid myself of my phone. The NYT article gives me hope that I, too, can accomplish this. Until now, I have only taken phone sabbaticals where I will go without for a few days time, but eventually I am lured back, as my phone is principle for social logistics. Now, I will closely examine how I can circumvent the necessity of text messaging and Snapchat in my generation. And so I ask myself, What is really needed to be a socially effecient person in 2022?

  3. To Jack,
    To me boredom has always meant shifting my focus to something else other than the situation I’m currently in. Meaning, if I’m bored, just hanging around the house instead of just hanging around the house, I do a cooking project, or start drawing, or start really listening to a piece of music with my headphones on and taking in all of the lyrics. So, when I say, I’m bored, it means it’s time to shift. Focus and really look as to what my options are around me in the moment. Good luck!


  4. As someone straddling the generational lines between millennials and gen z, reading the NYT article and this piece is very disheartening. Gen Z is coming up in an even later capitalist system than the millennials had to deal with when recovering from 2008, a financial crisis most people never recovered from. The same millennials that were supposed to be the generation to change things only accelerated a bleak future filled with digital screens, where human connection was to be sequestered entirely to the internet and made monetizable for even higher corporate profits. The Gen Z and alpha children are now growing up in a world where time before technology never existed, a new financial crisis is happening right under our noses with everyone acting as if it is okay, and it is already being passed to them that it is their responsibility to extricate the claws of social media and big tech. The same millennials that decried the boomers for handing them a ruined world, turned around and made it even worse for those to come after, and are already trying the same responsibility shifting they despised boomers for. I try to keep hope that gen z will truly be different, but as we’ve seen time and time again, when the adults who have caused the issues with the world try to get their children to fix it for them, the cycle only continues.

    • I disagree that having a club diminishes it. I think it’s a neat way around the overscheduling issue. Blocking off time for screwing around isn’t going to be accepted, despite the fact that screwing around is a necessary part of human psychology. Blocking off time for a club, on the other hand, makes it look official and significant to those who would object to these activities.

      I think it’s smart of the kids. Shows that they have an awareness of how to sell ideas. They’ll probably go pretty far in life.

  5. Great to hear some young people are not all running off the cliff like lemmings while looking at their phones. I refuse to get a smart phone because smart phones interfere with my personal security since 1. smartphones are a constant distraction of my appraisal of my surroundings, and 2. smartphones are often used as a surveillance devices by many governments and corporations. Don’t believe me then ask the victims of Harvey Weinstein.

  6. This gives me hope.

    I’m a millennial and despite working in tech, I have done a number of counter-cultural things like disabling all push notifications on my phone (except calls) and foregoing home internet for a year. And that’s in addition to spending a few weeks of the year backpacking in nature where I don’t have cell reception and am forced to disconnect

  7. This is fantastic. I can sort of anecdotally confirm this as the teenagers that live near us tend to skateboard, wear no designer clothes, and never, ever have a phone in hand.

    Whereas my generation is addicted to our phones. Even though I personally try to minimize my screen time I’ve continued to find ways to keep myself glued to my phone for longer than I care to admit.

  8. As someone who is a graduate of the high school these kids go to, I am so proud of them! My 8 year old told me she has no interest in social media…I’m going to encourage that as long as I can. I thought of you, Cal, when I saw the article, but knew that hundreds of others would send them too.

  9. That’s is really good story that made me interested in to make a club in my country too. I and my some friends have been making detoxing weeks in our country. I am from Uzbekistan and that is really good idea to make Detoxing club

  10. Well, good deal on this! I don’t use a smart phone today either, and I’ll be 55 this year. Oh, they are a useful tool, don’t get me wrong there, but when they debuted in 2008, and I’d seen my co-worker get one for around $2k, the shear size of it seemed to be a step backwards. The flip phone compactness is nice, but be aware, that there’s some terrible ‘junk’ flip phones out there, like the KaiOS. It’s like a reinvention of the wheel, but the wheel isn’t round. Very awkward to use.

  11. I want to say how impressed I am that so many young people think so seriously about technology and their lives in general. As for me, I do not have hard limits on the use of social media. I spend just under three hours a day on this. But my big problem is YouTube. I want to try to limit myself, maybe to watching it only on weekends.


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