Separation Anxiety: Digital-Free Travel Elicits Emotional Rollercoaster, And Then — Liberation

EAST ANGLIA, England — Going on vacation is supposed to be relaxing. Vacations are meant to be a break from the monotony of everyday life, and with that in mind, more people are attempting to completely stay off of the internet while traveling. A new joint study conducted in England and Australia analyzed the emotional and psychological consequences of “digital-free travel,” and found that most disconnected travelers experience emotional symptoms similar to that of drug addicts going through withdrawal.

The study shows that after an initial period of anxiety, frustration, and withdrawal, travelers reported feeling a heightened sense of enjoyment, appreciation, and eventually, liberation.

For most people, the idea of going anywhere, let alone on a long trip or vacation without their smartphone by their side is laughable. In today’s day and age we’re all so connected that the notion of even going a few hours without checking our email or social media accounts usually brings about a bit of anxiety or worry. At the same time, though, that constant, never-ending flow of information can be exhausting.

“In the current ever-connected world, people are used to constant information access and various services provided by different applications,” explains Lead author Dr Wenjie Cai in a release. “However, many people are increasingly getting tired of constant connections through technologies and there is a growing trend for digital-free tourism, so it is helpful to see the emotional journey that these travelers are experiencing.”

Researchers from the University of East Anglia, the University of Greenwich, and Auckland University of Technology analyzed participating travelers’ emotions before, during, and after their disconnected travel experiences. While vacationing, each person had no personal access to the internet, smartphones, laptops, social media, or even navigation tools.

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In all, 24 people from seven different countries took part in the study. Each participant recorded their experiences and emotions in a diary and via interviews, and most participants were disconnected for over 24 hours. While results varied among each traveler, the majority of participants experienced negative emotions upon disconnecting from the internet.

After getting over their initial frustrations, travelers engaged much more with their surroundings while disconnected, and interacted more often with their traveling companions and locals. Some participants said that they received unique advice and recommendations from locals about their vacation spots that they never would have learned from the internet. Many also reported enjoying improved attention and focus while disconnected, because they weren’t being constantly bombarded by new messages and notifications.

Besides just emotions, researchers also took a more practical approach to analyzing the travelers’ anxieties and other negative reports. For example, it was noted that a lack of online maps and translation services caused many travelers’ anxiety to spike. The study’s authors believe this information can prove useful for tourism and hospitality companies when they are putting together “off-the-grid” travel packages; if such packages offered travelers adequate offline navigation & translation services it would go a long way towards easing their transition into a disconnected travel experience.

“Understanding what triggers consumers’ negative and positive emotions can help service providers to improve products and marketing strategies,” Dr. McKenna says. “The trips our travelers took varied in terms of lengths and types of destinations, which provides useful insights into various influencing factors on emotions.”

Interestingly, some participants said their anxiety seemed to flood back as soon as they logged online again for the first time, mostly due to all the messages and notifications that built up while they were away.

Different vacation settings affected how travelers experienced their internet-free vacations; urban locations were more likely to see travelers get upset about a lack of navigation services, while travelers in more rural locations reported more frustrations related to boredom or the inability to communicate with the outside world.

If travelers were vacationing alone, as part of a group, or as a couple also played a role. Solo travelers reported more anxiety in general, while those traveling with at least one other person seemed to be more confidant in their ability to get by without internet. Participants traveling with another person who did have access to the internet also reported much less instances of anxiety or negative emotions.

Finally, researchers noted that the more an individual used the internet on a day-to-day basis to keep up with their professional commitments, as well as personal connections, the more likely they were to report negative withdrawal symptoms.

The study is published in the Journal of Travel Research.

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