First, it was disposable cameras. Then it was low-rise jeans. Now, Gen-Z’s latest “vintage” obsession is the flip phone – that mid-1990s era phone that has suddenly become oh so popular with millennials.
Today, these smaller, lightweight devices – some available for as little as $20 at big box retailers like Walmart and Amazon – are showing up in TikTok videos of young people unboxing them, bedazzling their cases just as earlier generations did, and filming tutorials on achieving a carefree, blurry aesthetic through the low quality camera.
But most importantly, they love the ability to disconnect – or as much as that’s even possible in 2023.
“I’m team flip phone revolution,” singer Camila Cabello tweeted Thursday, posing with a TCL flip phone, vintage. “Maybe I can write the theme song.”
Actress Dove Cameron, who rose to fame on the Disney Channel’s “Liv and Maddie” show, said in a November interview that she had switched to a flip phone. Spending too much time on her phone and looking at social media “is really bad for me,” she said.
“I found a little 90s, Matrix-y flip phone,” Cameron said. “I got a separate number for it, it’s really cheap and I think probably really sh*tty.”
Cameron said she unplugged and switched over because she found her social media presence “misleading.” The feeling is prevalent among Gen Zers – and its impact has been linked to a teen mental health crisis.
As smartphones and social media became more ubiquitous around 2012, so did the rate of depression among teens, psychologists say. Between 2004 and 2019 the rate of teen depression nearly doubled, according to the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration, which is a part of the US Department of Health and Human Services.
A new trend
Sammy Palazzolo, 18, a freshman at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, has a new routine with her phone when she goes out at night with friends.
She and her friends listen to the latest music on their smart phones as they get ready. Then, when it’s time to leave, they leave those smart devices behind.
Instead, they contact each other only through their flip phones throughout the night, and take pictures on them despite the now primitive camera. Their devices are a big conversation starter.
“At parties people will say, ‘oh my goodness, is that a flip phone?,’” Palazzolo said. “We’ll get to talk to some new people, meet some people, and everybody loves it.”
Reagan Boeder, 18, said she’s trying to get her sorority sisters in on the trend.
“I think people are going to go out more and more with flip phones just because it’s so fun and nostalgic and honestly a vibe,” Boeder said.
Before switching phones, Palazzolo found her nights out in her college town would often end in tears stemming from an unwelcome post on social media or a text from an ex, “the root cause was from our phones.”
As vintage technology began making a comeback, they came up with an unconventional solution.
In December, she and three friends went to their local Walmart. The process was unfamiliar for the 18-year-olds, from what model they should buy to finding the right phone plan. After four hours, Palazzolo bought the AT&T Flex for $49.99; her friends got cheaper models for $19.99 through Tracphone.
Palazzolo’s TikTok encouraging others to purchase flip phones has more than 14 million views and over 3 million likes, with hashtags that include #BRINGBACKFLIPPHONES and #y2kaesthetic.
“It eliminates all the bad things about college and brings all of the good things about a phone,” Palazzolo said. “Which is connecting with people and taking photos and videos. The photos and videos on this are fire.”
HMD Global is the exclusive licensee of Nokia, said Gen Z is an unusual demographic for the company. Both companies are based in Finland.
“It’s a generation that didn’t have a Nokia as their first phone and likely discovered our brand through social networks,” said Jackie Kates, HMD Global’s head of marketing.
Gen Z is used to the many features that come with smart phones, from their numerous apps like Instagram, Find My Friends or GPS. But there are safety concerns, too, that come with relying on these simple devices. Without the “find my” tracking feature, Palozzolo said she and her friends stick close together and use a buddy system to keep track of who is where.
Palozzolo wanted to use a flip phone during one high school summer because she thought it would be “cool.” “My parents said absolutely not, we need to be able to track you,” she said.
Back to vintage
Palazzolo is no stranger to “vintage” technology – she’s been bringing a digital camera to parties since her sophomore year of high school.
And though Apple’s iPhone 14 Pro has a 48 megapixel camera, it misses the delayed gratification of waiting to have pictures developed or downloaded on to a computer. Popular apps like “Hisptamatic” and “Dazz Cam” recreate digital and film camera photos and have thousands of downloads.
“I love the photos on the flip phones because they are grainy and blurry,” Palazzolo said. “And I think that captures the vibe of going out in college perfectly.”
Maybe one reason Gen Z yearns for the 1990s and 2000s era is the privacy and the absence of carefully curated images. It’s social media at its most casual – photo dumps with candid pictures and BeReal, a popular app that asks its users once a day to take real time selfie and post it within two minutes.
“I don’t ever want to be that person that’s just on their phone the whole time,” Boeder said. “Getting a flip phone kind of made that more possible.”
Back then, “people were more involved in each other than our phones and social media,” Boeder said. “It seemed like people just were talking to each other more and everything was more genuine and spontaneous.”
HMD Global said many people like the idea being less available.
“We attribute this shift to many smartphone users beginning to recognize they are spending too much time glued to their devices and having a strong desire to disconnect and ‘be fully present’ to improve their quality of social connections,” Kates said.
And yes, new Nokia flip phones are still available – the Nokia 2760 Flip is sold at Walmart from prepaid brands such as Verizon for $19.99. The 2780 can be found at Amazon and Best Buy for $89.99.
An emerging market
In 2022, the International Data Corporation said that the market for foldable phones was expected to reach $29 billion in 2025 – a compound annual growth of 70%. Samsung has shipped over 10 million units since its first generation model came out, which accounted for more than 88% of the global foldable smartphone market as of 2022.
These aren’t your $30 flip phones available at Walmart. An unlocked Samsung Galaxy Z Fold4 starts at $1,799.99, and the Galaxy Z Flip4 at $999.99.
“Samsung chose to bet on its foldable smartphones; a decision which has taken it is far ahead of its rivals in the number and sales of foldable smartphones” said Zaker Li, principal analyst on Omdia mobile devices’ team.
Omdia attributed the high price of Samsung foldable phones to lackluster sales for its earlier models, but sales “rapidly increased” to 9 million units in 2021, up 309% year-over-year.
Apple has no need to worry, however – Omdia expects that by 2026, foldable phones will account for 3.6% of the total smartphone market. By comparison, Apple’s market share is more than half of the entire smartphone market.