Smartphones are like cars. So why don’t we maintain them?

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A smartphone is not all that different from a car. When parents deem their children old and responsible enough, they may let them get one. There are several ways to pay for it: buying outright, financing or leasing. And like cars, phone models have become nearly indistinguishable from one year to the next.

Yet there’s one major difference between cars and phones, or at least in how people treat them. Car owners take their vehicles to a shop for service and repairs as needed. But when something as basic — and inexpensive — as a phone’s battery begins to degrade, people generally replace the entire device.

“Everyone knows the tires on your car wear out and you need to replace them,” said Kyle Wiens, the CEO of iFixit, a site that publishes instructions for repairing electronics. “There’s a psychological delusion around not having to do maintenance on electronics like we do with cars.”

As a result, the average amount of time that people own a car before replacing it, about eight years, dwarfs the length of time before a phone upgrade, about 3 1/2 years. But with some care, the life of a good phone can be stretched to six years.

Replacing phones often is costly to our wallets but even more so to the environment. The manufacturing of a phone, which is composed of at least 70 materials, is energy intensive and often takes place in countries where electricity production results in high carbon emissions, according to industrial design experts.

We should pause and ask why we upgrade our phones before we need to.

It turns out there’s a wealth of research in this area. Some elements — such as the high cost of doing some repairs — are out of our control. But a big reason is purely behavioral. Understanding the psychology of why we default to replacing phones can go a long way toward modifying our habits to save money and reduce our consumption, academics say.

A 2021 study by Delft University of Technology surveyed 617 people in Western Europe who had recently replaced their smartphones and other products. It asked how long they had held on to their last phone before replacing it and their reason for upgrading; people with broken or malfunctioning phones were asked whether they had considered repair.

The most common reason given for replacing a phone was a loss in performance, such as slower software or a degraded battery. Only 30% of those who said they had a partly malfunctioning phone (like a battery that depletes quickly) said they had considered repairing it.

The second most common reason given for replacing a phone was simply feeling that it was time to buy a new one.

Ruth Mugge, a design professor at Delft and an author of the study, said there was a misperception among people that 3 1/2 years was as long as a phone could last — even among people whose phones were still working beyond that time.



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