Digital Detox Researchers Explain How to Actually Enjoy a Tech-Free Vacation

"People do not miss the technology itself."

Unsplash/ Ethan Robertson 

Going on a tech-free vacation may seem like the simplest way to step away from work pressure, and online stress, but disconnecting from technology is hard. Fortunately, a paper released Tuesday in the Journal of Travel Research provides a guide to anyone wondering how it actually feels to go on a “digital detox,” based on the experiences of travelers who attempted to do so while on vacation.

The paper shows that it is possible to strike a balance between the bliss of disconnecting and the feeling of missing out when on a “digital detox” — a type of unplugged vacation that’s actually being pushed on some national tourism websites, like Visit Scotland. Using data on the experiences of 23 travelers who at least tried to embark on a digital detox vacation, Wenjie Cai, Ph.D., of the University of Greenwich and Brad McKenna, Ph.D., of the University of East Anglia compiled what they call the “Disconnected Emotions Model,” which outlines exactly what to expect when you leave your phone behind.

The model hinges on the idea that it’s not your phone that you’re particularly attached to but rather what your phone allows you to do. This dependence results in an emotional roller coaster during the disconnecting process that can be difficult to navigate, McKenna and Cai tell Inverse, but the rewards are worth the attempt.

"After a couple of days they begin to enjoy the experience."

“People do not miss the technology itself, rather they miss the things they can do with technology, like send text message, navigate with maps, share experiences on social media,” they explain over email. “In the first day or two travelers experience withdrawal symptoms such as frustration, anxiety, isolation. But after a couple of days they begin to enjoy the experience.”

How Disconnecting Makes Us Feel

McKenna and Cai point out that even just planning to detach from technology can cause its own cycle of emotions. At first, their participants felt excited about going offline. But as the detachment day approached, some started to feel stressed about how to navigate a new place or how to communicate in a country where they may not speak the language.

After two days, most of the anxiety about disconnecting subsided, according to interviews and diary entries from travelers. 

Unsplash/ Phillip Kammer 

Then, the detachment really hit. Participants felt “frustration, isolation or anxiety” about being disconnected, which generally took about two days to get over.

But once they were through with that phase, the participants reported some notable benefits.

One participant given the pseudonym “Thomas” reported a feeling of lightness without his phone in his pocket.

Without holding the phone on my hand or in my pocket, I feel much ‘lighter’. It is a psychological feeling. I feel I am more open to what is going on nearby instead of being into things on my social media.

Other participants reported similar themes, like a sense of liberation and a heightened awareness of their surroundings.

“They also become more aware of things they can do without technology, such as things in their environment such as talking to strangers, or appreciating the sites and sounds more, instead of having their heads always in their phones,” add McKenna and Cai.

What We Lose By Disconnecting

Those feelings of lightness, however, come at a logistical cost. Most travelers in this study use their phones for services like basic navigation. During their trips, many used Google Maps, Google Translate, or TripAdvisor to look up places to visit.

Being thrown into a new environment without those things left some people scrambling. For instance, “Billy,” who traveled to Switzerland and France, was essentially helpless without Google Maps, as he wrote in his diary:

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 each on a cab ride home.

Navigation and language barriers came up often in interviews. Fortunately, there’s a way around this. To experience the positive impacts of unplugging, the authors say you don’t need to completely lock your phone away. You just have to be disciplined enough to limit your time online.

“Some people just turn off the professional and social features of their mobile phones (such as Facebook, work mail and Instagram) and keep on the functional feature (such as Google Maps and Spotify). [Their experience] still reaches the positive effects,” they say.

How To Get Past “Reconnecting Shock”

Some participants said they were happy to get back online, but for those who weren’t as eager, getting reconnected was one of the largest sources of stress. They reported that they felt “upset and overwhelmed” when the flow of all those missed messages came back into their lives all at once. Cai and McKenna call that experience “reconnecting shock.”

The data suggest there are ways to blunt those feelings of reattachment anxiety, but most of them have to happen before the trip begins. It starts with telling colleagues and friends that you’re going off the grid, but it also involves building a grace period back into your vacation. Just one or two days at home before returning the office can help “wrap up the holiday experience.”

With grace periods built in and a bit of trial and error when it comes to navigating in a new place, taking time off from technology can lead to largely positive experiences, report McKenna and Cai. The key is recognizing that there will be some natural emotional waves that come with the bliss of unplugging, but it’s definitely worth sticking them out.

This article aims to theorize digitally disconnected travel experiences by investigating various emotional responses during the process of withdrawal and regain of technological affordances. The theoretical concepts of affordance and emotional episodes were adopted in this study to create a conceptual framework. Fifteen diaries and 18 interviews were collected from 23 participants’ reflections of their disconnected experiences. This study thus contributes a contextual update of the emotional episode theory by providing a detailed account of various emotions in the entire disconnecting/reconnecting travel experience. Also, this study contributes to the affordance literature by exploring the fluidity of technology affordances and environmental affordances. This paper develops the Disconnected Emotions Model (DEM), a theoretical framework to provide an understanding of the changing relationship between human emotions and material affordances.
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