People generally fall into three camps when it comes to the idea of a “digital detox”: those who can do it and feel refreshed afterward, those who try it and come back more stressed than ever, and those who would never even consider it.
But a new study from researchers in both marketing and information systems has found that if you do try it and get past the initial anxiety, your vacation time will – in many cases – be much more enjoyable without your devices. The results were published by Brad McKenna of the University of East Anglia, Wenjie Cai of the University of Greenwich, and Lena Waizenegger of Auckland University of Technology in the Journal of Travel Research.
Of course, you wouldn’t know vacations were more relaxing without electronics by the way people load up on gear. The study points out that a 2017 Gadget Usage Report from the UK found that people take 38% more gadgets with them on vacation than they do when they simply leave the house for the day.
Up until now, most studies of digital-free tourism have focused on those forced to disconnect because they were in dead zones, but little has been done to explore the experiences of those who choose to disconnect.
So the researchers talked to travelers who purposely gave up Internet access, phones, laptops, tablets, social media, and even navigation tools during a travel period of at least 24 hours just to see what kinds of emotions they experienced over the course of their vacations. After all, even whole family detox vacations are becoming more popular.
Now, the study was small – just 24 participants. There were 14 males and 10 females, all over the age of 20, with 45 being the oldest except for one participant over 50. Call it a survey of millennials if you want (and some will), but these age ranges span at least 3 generations. Participants hailed from the UK, US, China, New Zealand, Germany, Austria, and Australia and travel destinations ranged from New Orleans to Fiji. Trip length varied from 1-35 days and the longest anyone went without their gadgets was 13 days.
The research was gathered using two different methods – fifteen diaries and 18 interviews. But this qualitative data provided a lot more insight into the range of emotions that people felt over the course of planning, participating in, and then reconnecting after their vacations. It also allowed researchers to assess emotions in the moment whereas previous research has only surveyed disconnected travelers once they returned and reflected on their trips. In fact, they collected data in the pre-disconnect, disconnection, and reconnection phases to explore emotions related to mobile devices and their effect on our vacations. The 64 pages of narratives from participants gave the researchers more to work with than previous studies that simply asked people to rank their feelings in some manner.
Of course, some of what the authors found was similar to what’s been found before – we’re slaves to our gadgets, we let them distract us, and we get upset without them. Negative emotions like anxiety, tension, and distress abound. But unlike other studies, this one showed that that’s not all there is to it.
In addition to assessing emotions, the researchers used something called the “theory of affordances” to assess what people feel they’ve lost or gained by taking technology out of the equation. So, for example, you may gain a greater awareness and appreciation for your surroundings without your phone to distract you. Then again, not having access to Google Maps, for example, could get you lost and cause anxiety. Of course, the fact that our gadgets offer us something convenient (followed by something addictive) is the reason we can’t leave home without them anyway.
When it came to emotions, most of them were context-dependent and interconnected with the theory of affordances. In other words, it’s harder to have a good experience if a lack of connection is seriously inconveniencing you. Anxiety got the best of people when they were worried about things like getting lost or accessing bus schedules and tour information. And if you think about it, a digital detox may seem great until you realize you can’t get immediate access to directions, restaurant reviews, weather apps, or send texts about meet-ups. In fact, people reported picking their gadgets back up just to make life easier and more efficient.
Others reconnected during vacation just to kill time – they wanted to read the news while on the bus or scroll through social media when they were bored. And still others associated their devices with a sense of safety. Having easy access to information allowed especially solo travelers to stay on the beaten path.
Prior to their gadget-free vacations, people reported feeling excited, anxious, and deeply uncertain about whether it would work. Negative feelings crept in when people had professional commitments to keep track of, or were worried about (real or imagined) family emergencies or not being able to contact help if they needed it.
The researchers noted that:
“Social affordances have created expectations from family, friends, and work colleagues toward participants being available and responsive not just in their daily life but also during their holidays. Many participants worried their friends and families would get worried if they did not respond promptly.”
People also worried that they’d feel isolated without their devices, and indeed they did:
“We also found that many people got bored not using their phones, as it is also their personal entertainer during downtimes, for example, before going to bed or waiting for the bus.”
But not all participants experienced negative emotions prior to or during their vacations, especially those who had set out to detox in the first place. Some advanced planning allowed people who were used to being available 24/7 because of their jobs to truly disconnect in peace and pleasure.
Being cut off from the constant stream of information had a liberating effect on many participants. It even helped them realize just how much information they consume in their daily lives. They also tended to engage in more social interactions, were much more attentive to their surroundings, and felt more present in the physical world without the distraction from constant notifications and messages. The weight of their devices was lifted both physically and psychologically. In other words, they were actually on vacation.
Upon reconnecting, some participants felt it had been a great experience and even vowed to turn their phones off more often. Many realized just how addicted they had become to social media and “chasing likes” and wanted to change that, finally realizing just how superficial that it all is.
One participant reported in their travel diary:
“It was rather disappointing turning my phone back on. Seeing the Facebook likes and messages I had…I felt how superficial they were. Not important stuff. I started to think why am I so addicted to counting my likes and reading comments that don’t really have a huge impact on my life? Technology, especially Facebook, has become my life.”
On the other hand, some people were relieved to reconnect and immediately resumed their scrolling without regret.
The important thing is that the experiment allowed people to reevaluate their relationship to technology at a time when it was most rewarding to be connected to the outside world.
Lead author Dr. Wenjie Cai told me in an e-mail that travelers found it easier to participate in digital-free holidays when they:
- Traveled to natural environments (such as national parks, campsites, and rural areas),
- Traveled with companions,
- Had lower levels of social and work commitments in their everyday lives, and
- Had a strong desire to “disconnect”
He also emphasized that while the digital-free holiday was good for mental health, it required not only pre-planning but psychological commitment “including suffering the withdrawal symptoms of digital addiction.”
But it turns out withdrawal is actually good for you. The researchers are now working on two more follow-up articles to explore the phenomenon, but Dr. Cai said that researchers found that those who pushed through the withdrawal experienced an improvement in well-being as a result.
The disappointment that came with re-connecting was not only because people realized how much of their lives they were spending online, but because they realized they weren’t really that important. The world kept turning without them. Problems were solved, conversations came and went, the news cycle churned, and no one freaked out about a lack of social media posting from vacationers (after all, if you’ve seen one pair of feet in the sand, you’ve seen them all).
So, let’s be honest – the Internet could use a good 24 hours or more without you – and you without it. It’ll be exactly the same, in all its deranged glory, the minute you get back online.
While it can be overwhelming to come back to a deluge of messages after unplugging, it can also become clear that most things come and go without your immediate attention – and to some extent, that can be a relief.
Besides, you can use all those vacation photos for your #latergrams and #flashbackfridays, if you must.