Ann Makosinski: Teenage inventor uses TEDx Teen talk to call on young people to ditch their smartphones

Student Ann Makosinski, 18, tells Susie Mesure how screen time gets in the way of better things

Being told to put down their smartphone and live in the moment is nothing new to most teenagers. But how many teens are the ones doing the telling?

Ann Makosinski is urging thousands of people to ditch their devices and do something else instead with their time. The 18-year-old Canadian university student does not even own a smartphone and never has done, giving her an unlikely kinship with the actor Eddie Redmayne, who last week revealed he had swapped to an analogue handset – albeit temporarily. 

Makosinski, who has won global acclaim for inventing a torch powered solely by the heat from your hand, was speaking at TEDx Teen, a youth-orientated offshoot of the TED Talks programme, held in London. “The main moral of my talk is, next time you pick up your phone, think about all the possibilities off it,” she told The Independent on Sunday ahead of the event. 

Ann Makosinski demonstrates her invention: a torch powered by the heat from your hand (Yahoo News)

She wants to encourage children – and adults – to be more creative, which requires independent thinking. She described how as a child her parents would refuse to give her toys or let her watch television. And she was never allowed a mobile phone. “My parents didn’t want me distracted and playing games on it, because that would be wasting time,” she recalls. “So to entertain myself I made my own toys. Not being given everything encourages you to create .... That was one of the first steps for me learning to invent things.”

Makosinski, whose mother is Filipino and her father Polish, already has a string of high-profile international awards for her own inventions. As well as the torch, which she came up with for a friend in the Philippines who didn’t have electricity at home so couldn’t study, she has designed a phone-charging travel mug; last month she won 50,000 Canadian dollars (£24,000) from Shell Canada for her prototype, which uses heat from hot water to funnel electricity to mobile devices. She appreciates the irony, given her antipathy, but says: “It’ll appeal to the masses.” A recent report by digital specialists eMarketer predicted 94 per cent of UK teens would have a smartphone in 2016. 

Despite shunning smartphones –“I just don’t see the point” – Makosinski is no technophobe. She has started making YouTube videos and has an iPod Touch, which she uses to contact her boyfriend via Facebook Messenger. Yes, this requires wifi, but: “If you don’t have wifi, you just don’t text people. Like, ‘Oh well!’.”

She also has an analogue “flip phone”, which she bought in September before starting at the University of British Columbia, where she studies arts and science. She laughs, remembering how she had bought a phone with a touch screen but made her father double back to the shop so she could switch it for her analogue handset, which is made by ZTE and is on a basic call plan. She chose hers over one with huge keys “because it was for an old person. I got the hint!”

At UK border control on 14 January, she was asked what she was doing in London. She told the passport officer about her talk. “This guy was like, ‘We don’t call them flip phones! We call them old phones’,” she says. “But it isn’t old! I just bought it!”

She warns that constant fiddling with your phone adds up. “The overall interaction every day is huge .... You need to put it down. Just for a day! Try it and see what happens.”

Not having a phone in school made her more sociable, she adds. “With everyone texting in high school, I had to interact with people so I didn’t look like that awkward person standing in the corner not saying anything.”  Now she’ll ring up for an actual chat. “People nowadays are so afraid of talking on the phone it’s ridiculous. They’re like, ‘I’d rather text’. But if they don’t want to talk to you ... then that’s probably a sign that they don’t value you as a friend. Or they have issues that they need to deal with!” 

Her favourite social media is YouTube; she likes nothing better than making a snack and a cup of hot chocolate and settling down to watch  vloggers – Zoella or Tyler Oakley, say – on her laptop. “Phone screens are too small to properly appreciate YouTube videos ... Plus I won’t be distracted.” She avoids Facebook, Twitter and Instagram where possible, but admits they are useful for promoting her nascent YouTube channel.

Her tips for parents who want to bring up potential inventors include lots of activities – “sport is one way of keeping kids off their phones” – and limiting screen time; she was allowed half an hour of weekend TV. “And don’t give them as many things as they could possibly want. Which is hard, because I’m sure you want to give your children everything.”