My Sandboxed “Candy Bar” Phone: Curbing Distractions and Safeguarding Privacy

My system to curb distractions and increase my data privacy: a separate sandboxed smartphone that holds distracting apps

My Sandboxed “Candy Bar” Phone: Curbing Distractions and Safeguarding Privacy
A photo showing two smartphones on a round white table

Have you ever developed a habit over the years that has become second nature to you? But then a friend notices it and you have to explain it in detail… and you realize your habit is totally unusual and a bit quirky?

Dear Realists, I have that quirky habit. Well, one of many I suppose. And I’d love to tell you about it because it could inspire you to have a more mindful relationship with your phones - with a big added bonus: increasing your privacy.

I have one main phone for essential communications - and a separate, sandboxed, mostly empty smartphone whose only purpose is to hold distracting apps (by companies I don’t trust with my private data).

This system is saving me SO MUCH TIME and giving me peace of mind. I couldn’t do things any other way.

We need to talk about privilege

This is a first world problems story, the kind I can tell only because I can afford to purchase certain electronic gadgets. I am fully aware of this and I want to get this issue immediately out of the way.

The system I found ranges in price from 0 dollars (yay) to 500 dollars (ouch). You probably already have all you need to implement it: an old feature phone or an old smartphone gathering dust in a drawer - in that case, my system will be completely FREE to you. The 500 dollars cost refers to the idea of you buying a brand new smartphone to set up this system, but chances are, you won’t have to.

The Two Phones System: How It Started

Up until late October 2022, the only active social media account I was using was Twitter. I had deactivated Facebook and Instagram following the 2016 elections and the Cambridge Analytica scandal and never looked back.

I had not foreseen the scenario where a billionaire mercurial agent of chaos would buy up my favorite social network and immediately get to dismantle it, turning it into a glorified $8chan. RIP dear Twitter. But what to do now to stay in touch with friends and contacts who live far away? I had to reluctantly re-activate my Instagram account (since sadly, 99.9% of my friends are not on Mastodon).

Installing a Meta-owned product on my main smartphone was an instant hard no. I would never in a million years allow Meta to scrape my address book, have access to my photos and videos, my movements around the city or my microphone. Yes, I know you can set strict restrictions with Apple iOS but I still don't trust Meta with my data. Leaks are inevitable. Especially since you have to allow camera and microphone access to post to Instagram Stories. I had to find another way.

So what did I do? I “resurrected” an old phone, wiped all its data, created a new Apple ID for it… and installed Instagram on it. And then Threads… and finally the New York Times and Washington Post apps because I found I was opening them for distraction and escapism and I didn’t want them on my main phone anymore.

This alt phone’s front and back cameras are covered by washi tape and its lighting port has a special dongle that cuts off the microphone. It doesn’t have a SIM card, so it only works at home, with WiFi. And again, it has a brand new Apple ID, so none of my main phone’s photos or videos or contacts sync with it.

a photo showing two phones on a small round white table: my main phone on the left and a second phone on the right inside a box, with a dongle

I call this second device my “candy bar” phone: it holds distracting apps I don’t want on my main phone. It’s something I use only sporadically and at home, in small doses. Like sweets, if I were to consume too much of it I would start feeling sick. So a small occasional treat it is.

In praise of realistic tech habits

I’m a big proponent of adopting habits that are accessible and realistic to maintain over the long term.

I have read so many essays from tech reporters and thought leaders that extoll the virtues of ditching a smartphone in favor of a “dumb” or feature phone. There are even bestselling books devoted to this idea.

In an ideal world I too would “break up with my smartphone.” But I can’t. I have a small child at the crèche and aging parents that live in a different country. The crèche sends messages with photo attachments via Apple’s iMessage; my parents and I communicate via Signal and FaceTime because texting or calling them on their cell phones would be prohibitively expensive. I can’t ditch my smartphone.

But now, with my system, my main phone is as close to a feature phone as it gets. It only holds messaging and productivity and navigation apps. The second “candy bar” phone is always left behind at home; it sits on a shelf and I tend to use it very early in the morning or late at night, when my child is asleep. A win for my concentration AND data privacy.

The only inconvenience I can think of: when friends or acquaintances message me via Instagram DM making plans to meet up, I always need to remind them that the phone with Instagram is my “burner phone” that stays home and I only look at it sporadically. It’s useless for time-sensitive communications because most of the time it’s not with me.

Let’s talk about time and money

You may think: I’m intrigued but your system is so cumbersome and expensive to set up!

Well, not really.

The time factor: 30 minutes or less.

All you have to do is create a separate Apple ID with a different email address (5 minutes), download “distracting” apps onto the second “candy bar” phone and log in… and you’re good to go.

The money factor: 0 dollars to 70 dollars as the cheapest setup.

This system could be totally FREE for you, if you repurposed an old smartphone or an old feature phone.

I bet that you or your parents may still have an old Nokia or Motorola phone sitting somewhere around the house. PSA: I bet it still works! I gave my old Nokia 8210 to my mom and she used it for nearly 20 YEARS. She only gave it up when the whole family adopted iPhones and it was easier to share photos and messages that way. But technically it still works.

You don’t have an old feature phone or an old smartphone to set up this two phone system? You could get a brand new Nokia phone (average cost: 50-70 dollars) and use it as your main phone… and turn your current smartphone into the “sandboxed” candy bar phone I mentioned.

Nokia feature phones have incredible batteries, so this would be a small investment that could last a decade or more.

The Sandboxed Candy Bar Smartphone Prison (optional, $38)

A photo of my smartphone next to a box from iDiskk showing its Timer Phone Locker
My "candy bar" smartphone and its Timer Phone Locker

You have a sandboxed candy bar phone and you still use it too much. What to do now?

Put it in “prison”.

As I explained in last week’s post “The In-betweeners” I am online for only half the day and when I’m with my child my devices are off or put away. Well, during the six or so precious hours I can work, when my little one is at the crèche, I typically have the sandboxed “candy bar phone” within reach. I’m pretty good at keeping it at bay, but I must confess that, during moments of weakness, I end up scrolling Threads or Mastodon for far longer than I should.

I needed to find a way to curb my phone use even more. So I bought a “prison” for it.

I found on Amazon a “phone locker box” from Diskk (price: $38) that imprisons my phone for however long I wish. It comes with a built in timer and an ingenious lock mechanism. It’s a bit on the cheesy side – there are two sentences engraved in white at the bottom of the box, that read “Lock my phone” and “Lock my dream” (major eye roll on the second one). But it does its job wonderfully.

I put my candy bar phone in the locker box, close the lid, set a timer… then I double-click on the lock button and the display shows a 10 second countdown (it is still possible to cancel the phone “imprisonment” during this countdown). Then the lock activates with a small sound… and it is impossible to remove the smartphone from it - unless I were to break the box with a tool. If I wanted to, I could even put my main phone in there, as there are carefully cut holes at the top and bottom that allow you to answer emergency calls, if you put your phone in face up.

Ultimately, borrowing concepts from James Williams’ powerful book Stand Out of Our Light, you could say that this system allows me to align my life goals with my tech use. I use tech… but I’m not used by it. Which is the whole mission of The Realists.

I’m curious to hear if you have a system in place to curb your smartphone use. Please share your comments below.

Thanks as always for being here.


You can find me on Mastodon and Threads

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