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The merits and pitfalls of a smartphone-free vacation

It’s summer: time to ditch our phones, tablets and laptops and hit the beach. What better period to indulge in digital detox and decompress than August, right?

Sadly, this is not an easy thing to do. Simply leaving our devices behind for a week or two won’t suffice to break a decade-long dependency on screens, developed gradually and intertwined in all aspects of our daily lives. This holds true especially for smartphones that often serve as better functioning extensions of our own brains.  

Research on the merits of digital detox is contradictory, which is partly due to the inconsistent and often vague conceptualization of the term itself. This literature review published last year summarised the findings from 21 studies dedicated to the topic of digital detox and came up with some pretty mixed results as to its touted effectiveness in increasing psychological well-being and overall life satisfaction.

It appears that device-free periods are mostly effective in reducing screen addiction, perceived stress, anxiety, and depression in people already exhibiting mild to moderate symptoms of depression. For the rest of us, those effects may vary.

A few of the analysed studies signaled none or even negative effects on the well-being of some people linked with the conscious avoidance of technology. Several studies focused on the participants’ feelings of relatedness to others, finding that for some, ditching smartphones leads to a decreased feeling of interpersonal connection and… loneliness. One reviewed paper revealed that – surprise, surprise – some of us experience higher levels of boredom when left without our devices.

Another batch of the reviewed studies brought in contrasting results on wildly fluctuating levels of participants’ FOMO (fear of missing out) and perceived stress, both linked to the restricted access to smartphones. Two authors found that people undergoing voluntary digital detox may fall prey to bad mood and experience higher levels of negative affect as a result.

With these results in mind, is it reasonable to expect that a smartphone-free vacation could do wonders for our mental health, making up for months of built-up tech-related stress throughout the year? Should we get rid of our devices altogether as some travellers do, or could we instead think of clever ways to reduce screen exposure without going cold turkey on detox? Some people just opt for a dumb phone temporarily: an old Nokia to make calls and check the time without being distracted by apps.

This paper published in Tourism Management Perspectives in 2018 aims to shed light into our modus operandi during vacations. The qualitative data was collected from three focus groups and 22 in-depth interviews with people of different nationalities and ages. All interviewed participants recognized that digital devices cause distraction that interferes with the immediate tourist experience, mostly due to our tendency to multitask between screens and real life. Digital distraction manifests in various modes: visual (e.g., failing to notice a sight when engulfed in one’s smartphone), auditory (e.g., not paying attention to tour guide or travel companion while absorbed in a call), manual (e.g., fidgeting with mobile device rather than resting or engaging in tourist activities), emotional (e.g., disruption to tourist mood by a message delivered online; experiencing sadness, irritation, fear, or excitement and stepping away from the ‘present’ environment) or cognitive (e.g., being absent-minded due to a message read on the device).

In brief, while scrolling down our phones, we are missing out on our surroundings. Digital distraction also affects the quality of social interactions during holidays: some interviewed participants underlined that increased mobile use led to less connection with tour group members and people encountered during the vacation, followed by feelings or irritation, conflicts or a general sense of isolation.  

Interestingly, if we use our smartphones for specific activities only, the deleterious effects of technology on the immediate touristic experience are limited. Taking vacation photos is one such example. A study from 2016 done by researchers at Yale University and University of Southern California shows that taking photos may actually increase the enjoyment of experiences because it directs greater visual attention to aspects of the experience that one intends to photograph. However, this positive effect only manifests when the said experience is mundane and not that engaging on its own (e. g. people report the they feel more excited after taking photos during a bus tour or when photographing their meal). On the contrary, if we interrupt an already exciting experience with an urge to photograph it, this could instead interfere with our immediate joy of being in the moment. So, feeling a sudden pang of summertime sadness? Dig out your phone and take a photo of that lovely gelato!   

Like all things in life, effective digital detox comes down to moderation. No need to risk withdrawal symptoms or rising frustration to ruin your holiday by throwing away all devices: deactivating some apps and definitely your work mailbox may actually do a pretty decent job.  

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