Did you just get back from your summer vacation? If so, close your eyes and imagine doing the whole thing again, only this time without your phone (or any other pinging, digitally connected device). Did you feel intrigued but also anxious? If so, you're not alone.
A new study that dove deep into the emotional experience of a completely disconnected holiday revealed just how addicted to our devices we are, as well as the huge benefits of leaving them completely behind when you go away.
The emotional roller coaster of the phone-free vacation.
Many of us spend some time pondering how connected we should be on holiday before setting off on a trip, but Wenjie Cai, a British business professor with a specialty in tourism, was better equipped than most to take a scientific approach to these considerations.
Along with a team of colleagues, Cai designed a study that asked 24 travelers from seven countries to leave their devices at home for the duration of their trips. The participants then recorded their feelings daily in a journal. The researchers followed up with an interview after they returned. What did the study find?
At first, as you might expect, there were bumps in the road. "Anxiety started to build in anticipation of disconnecting, with travelers worrying about what would happen when they unplugged," reports Cai and his collaborators in a post on The Conversation.
As the travelers set off, things only got more stressful. "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 travelers who were used to technology in their daily lives," the report continues. Those who were traveling solo also suffered more.
A very bright light at the end of the tunnel.
Then, however, things began to turn around. Forced to look up from their screens and actually ask locals for directions, travelers started to get back into the swing of offline life and rediscovered it has benefits. Big benefits.
"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," the researchers write. "They felt free, happy, excited, and relieved."
If one of the major benefits of travel is forming memories you can enjoy for life, a boost in memorable experiences is a major benefit. Getting to know another culture is a shortcut to self-awareness and a leg up to career success, science says. And in our lonely world, who couldn't use more moments of genuine connection with our travel companions?
But these aren't even the most impressive benefits of a phone-free getaway. After gaining some distance from their inboxes and social streams, some travelers reported feeling underwhelmed by what they came back to.
"It was rather disappointing turning my phone back on. Seeing 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?" said one traveler.
After a genuine real-world experience, online life paled in comparison, pushing many to rethink their relationship with tech longer-term. The effects of a vacation-long digital detox lasted much longer than the trip itself.
How to plan a successful digital-free trip.
All of which suggests you might want to consider going phone-free for next year's vacation. But the researchers caution not all trips are equally well suited to a leaving your devices behind. As you can imagine, a multi-city itinerary which requires you to make 15 connections and constantly check bus, train, and subway schedules is not going to be nice to do the old-fashioned way. The internet has its legitimate uses.
So plan your holiday accordingly. "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," suggests the post.
If you're committed to a digital-free vacation and are mindful of these considerations when planning your trip, getting away without your devices can be an incredibly liberating way to make memories and friends, as well as resetting your relationship with tech for the longer term.