Could You Travel Without a Smartphone?

Public Domain. Unsplash/Alicia Steels – Tourists snap photos at the Louvre in Paris

A new study asked 24 travellers to take this challenge and report back on their experiences.

Travel has changed with the advent of smartphones. Instead of wandering streets aimlessly, looking for interesting restaurants and landmarks, we walk with our eyes and noses down, comparing Google reviews and following maps. Or maybe we're not paying attention at all to our surroundings, engrossed instead in following friends' antics back home on social media.

How different would your travel experience be if you left your smartphone at home? Does the very thought strike panic into your heart or does it sound wonderfully liberating? This question is what led researchers from universities in the UK and Australia to conduct an interview-based study, titled, "Turning It Off: Emotions in Digital-Free Travel." Published this month in the Journal of Travel Research, it describes sending 24 participants on trips without their smartphones.

The researchers wrote in The Conversation that they were motivated by "growing concern about the negative impact digital technology can have on people's wellbeing" and wanted to explore the benefits of a digital detox. Participants were asked to keep a journal describing their feelings leading up to, during, and after the phone-free holiday, and were interviewed following the experience.

The majority of participants were millennials, described by one researcher as having a "high reliance on digital technologies in their daily lives." These young people "tended to have stronger emotional reactions to being disconnected than some of our older participants." Not surprisingly, they struggled with the disconnection, many experiencing anxiety leading up to departure.

The initial days were hardest, fraught with "a mixture of frustration, worry, isolation, and anxiety," and the participants expressed concerns about emergency situations and not being able to get help. They also had to practice new skills:

"Travellers at this stage were forced to travel in an old-fashioned 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."

Gradually, however, the ones who stuck with it started to enjoy the experience. They felt more immersed in their destination, made friends with locals, and had better experiences with travel companions. When they got home and reconnected with their smartphones and social media networks, their initial anticipation turned to disappointment when they realized how distracting and superficial those online connections can be.

It is a curious study that's bound to meet some controversy. As commenters pointed out, smartphones are really only a crutch when they're used for mindless entertainment and not the powerful, effective tools that they can be. But the problem is that it's hard to resist the emotional tug of that entertainment, and sometimes taking a drastic step away is the most effective way of dealing with it.

The study authors suggest that tour operators pay attention to these findings and consider offering digital-free travel experiences for people needing that extra nudge and support.