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Taking a ‘digital-free’ vacation can be an emotional roller coaster, researchers report

safari image
Photo by Devaiah Mallangada Kalaiah on Unsplash
Travellers experienced different levels of emotions due to technology disconnection. Feelings of anxiety started to build with the anticipation of disconnecting, with worries about what would happen.

How would you react if you had to leave your smartphone, tablet, computer and all other digital devices at home before going on your next vacation? Would you find the experience liberating and relaxing? Or would it make you anxious and tense?

In an intriguing paper published online Wednesday in the Journal of Travel Research, three researchers from Great Britain and New Zealand describe the emotional experiences of 24 people who volunteered to go on digital-free vacations.

What happened could be perhaps best described as an emotional roller coaster. Most of the volunteers first went through a period of digital “withdrawal,” marked by anxiety and feelings of frustration. Eventually, however, those negative emotions gave way to acceptance, enjoyment and even “liberation.” Then, when the volunteers re-connected digitally, many felt “upset and overwhelmed” by all the e-mails and other notifications waiting in their various inboxes.

“We found that some participants embraced and enjoyed the disconnected experience straightaway or after struggling initially, while for others it took a little bit longer to accept the disconnected experience,” says Brad McKenna, one of the study’s authors and a lecturer (assistant professor) of information systems at the University of East Anglia, in a released statement.

“Many also pointed out that they were much more attentive and focused on their surroundings while disconnected, rather than getting distracted by incoming messages, notifications or alerts from their mobile apps,” he added.

The comments in the study from the volunteers about their digital-free trip make it clear, however, that the experience wasn’t an easy one for most of them. Here, for example, is a comment from someone who traveled through Switzerland:

Once we finished up at the bar, we tried to navigate our way back to the village we were staying. That was incredibly difficult without technology; no timetables, connection details or pricing could be found as all the transport offices/counters were closed past 8 pm. Without technology to guide us home, we missed a bus and took the wrong tram and ended up having to spend 35CHF [Swiss francs] each on a cab ride home.

And here’s what a volunteer said about his first digital-free morning in Vienna:

Usually before I get out of bed, I will check my emails, Facebook and the news. But I just lay there staring at the wall. I went to breakfast and saw others using their phones and I felt envious of them. When I eat alone, I would usually look at Facebook or 9Gag while eating. I felt very isolated and alone. So, I tried to listen to other people’s conversations, but the majority were not in English.

Mostly millennials

McKenna and his two co-authors — Wenjie Cai, a lecturer of tourism and hospitality at the University of Greenwich, and Lena Waizenegger, a lecturer in information systems at the Auckland University of Technology — recruited 14 men and 10 women (including themselves) through a Facebook posting to give up all their electronic devices and travel digital-free during their next planned trip.

The volunteers came from seven countries and traveled to 17 different countries, including Cuba, the Ukraine, Austria, Taiwan, Vietnam, England and New Zealand. Some of the vacations took place in cities; others involved trips through rural areas or even hiking in a national park. Almost all the volunteers were millennials, except for two who were Gen-Xers. The length of the trips ranged from one to 35 days. Although most of the volunteers stayed disconnected for at least one day, few did so for the entire planned vacation.

The volunteers were asked to keep a diary of their emotions and feelings before, during and after the disconnected part of their trip. The researchers also conducted interviews with them when they returned.

A similar pattern

The diaries and interviews revealed that the digital-free vacations tended to have a similar emotional pattern, which the three researchers describe in an article they wrote for The Conversation:

Individuals who choose to disconnect on holiday tend to be looking for some therapeutic rehabilitation. But we found the digital-free journey was not always easy. Travellers experienced different levels of emotions due to technology disconnection. Feelings of anxiety started to build with the anticipation of disconnecting, with worries about what would happen. One participant said: “To be honest, two days before the trip I was a little bit nervous about it.”

The negative emotions escalated in the first few days of the disconnected holiday with a mixture of frustration, worry, isolation, and anxiety. The feelings were especially overwhelming for some tech-savvy travellers who were used to technology in their daily lives. They struggled to settle into a new environment without their usual support of technology. One participant mentioned their anxiety around safety: “There is a chance that I might be in danger or have an accident, and my family cannot reach me.”

Travellers at this stage were forced to travel in an old-fashion manner, navigating using a printed map, talking to strangers, and reading printed bus timetables. Two of our participants even gave up at this stage as they found the emotional experience unbearable. …

[Eventually,] our participants overcame the initial emotions and then started to enjoy the digital-free experience. They found themselves more immersed in the destination, created more valuable moments with their travel companions, and had many more memorable and authentic encounters with locals.

They felt free, happy, excited, and relieved. One participant said: “I feel quite good that I made it this far without technology. I feel quite liberated.” Without the disruptions of digital technologies, they were fully engaged with their holiday experience, demonstrating that a digital-free holiday can contribute to wellbeing. …

Influencing factors

Several factors appeared to influence how the volunteers perceived their digital-free travel experience.

“It was easier to disconnect in rural destinations, if participants had travel companions, if they had fewer work commitments back home, if they had strong motivations for disconnecting, or if their reliance on technology in daily life was low,” the researchers write.

People who traveled with others tended to have fewer “withdrawal” symptoms, for example, while those traveling alone reported that not having their smartphone left them feeling more vulnerable and less safe.

An Austrian woman, who travelled alone to Kiev, Ukraine, reconnected to her smartphone less than 24 hours after arriving at her destination.

“Kiev is extreme and difficult, especially the language, because the letters are different, and Russian and Ukrainian are languages I do not understand at all,” she told the researchers. “… So, the reasons [for being unable to disconnect] were the language, the writing, and that I was on my own. I was really scared about that; I thought I do not want to get lost.”

Not the last word

This paper recounts the experiences of only 24 travellers, so its findings are certainly not the last word on the topic. Still, the travellers’ descriptions of their “digital detoxxing” vacations are interesting, given how much we rely on our smartphones and other digital devices to help us get through our days, including — or, perhaps, especially — when we’re on vacation.

“With a growing concern about the negative impact digital technology can have on people’s wellbeing, especially on holiday, we wanted to find out if a digital detox would help,” the researchers write. “But we found that disconnecting on holiday comes with emotional challenges of its own.”

So, again, how do you think you would react if you had to leave your smartphone, tablet, computer and all other digital devices at home before going on your next vacation?

FMI: You’ll find an abstract of the paper on the Journal of Travel Research’s website, but the full paper is behind a paywall.

Comments (1)

  1. Submitted by Jeffrey Brenner on 08/15/2019 - 12:25 pm.

    I sarcastically ask how did we ever live before smartphones?

    Not having a smartphone and limiting my activities on-line I don’t understand the need to constantly connected.

    When I go on vacation I leave my laptop at home. When I get home I check email and find I can delete many of them.

    More and more I feel vindicated in my decision to never own a smartphone.

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