Unplug: A Case for Ditching Technology on Vacation

July 20, 2015
Nicole Jenet

Unplug: A Case for Ditching Technology on Vacation

If the Kid President Robby Novak is asking you to do it, you know it’s important. The popular Internet personality released a video on his YouTube channel asking us to stop taking “half vacations,” “vague-cations,” and “fake-cations.”

One way he suggests doing this?

“Let’s all put our camera phones down!” he exclaims in his video. Well, Kid President, that’s easier said than done.

Technology, especially our smart phones, has essentially become an extension of our physical selves. Hence the panic that sets in of feeling lost when you forgot to bring your phone somewhere with you. And it’s no wonder – we rely on technology for many things, like showing us how to get somewhere, keeping in contact with friends and family, managing our schedule, waking us up on time each morning, letting us know the latest news and more. Plus, there are all those games and social media platforms for when you’re bored or in the mood to see what friends and celebrities are up to.

When all of those resources play such an important role in having each day run smoothly, it’s hard to imagine disconnecting from it. But, when you’re traveling and on vacation, doing that may be just what you need.

One of the major reasons people plan to travel and vacation is to get away from their everyday life and responsibilities in an attempt to have fun, relax, unwind, and see another, amazing part of the world. But some studies and experts point out that this may not be possible if you never let go of technology.

Arianna Huffington tested this idea out last year – she took a family vacation to Hawaii and embarked on a challenge to remain unplugged during that seven-day holiday. That challenge meant no TV or social media, with only two email check-ins a day with her Huffington Post editors on the three days that her offices were open during her Christmas vacation.

Rather than remaining connected to her booming work life, she used her time away from it all to spend time with her daughters, sister and ex-husband in Hawaii, sans photographing Hawaii’s renowned sunsets, tweeting, Facebooking and Instagramming. In other words, she planned on focusing on “the now” and being mindful of who and what was around her.

Why did she do this?

“Big Data, unfettered information, the ability to be in constant contact and our growing reliance on technology are all conspiring to create a noisy traffic jam between us and our place of insight and peace. Call it an iParadox: our smartphones are actually blocking our path to wisdom,” Huffington writes. “Our addiction to screens is affecting our well-being, productivity and creativity.”

Can you really be addicted?
Are we really addicted to technology and our phones? If you ask Dr. Gary Small, the answer is yes.Unplug: A Case for Ditching Technology on Vacation

“Even though there’s an area of controversy around it, if you look at the definition of an addiction, it’s an activity that you can’t stop doing, that you keep wanting to do even though it interferes with your daily life,” says Dr. Small, Parlow-Solomon Professor on Aging, professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the Semel Institute and director of the UCLA Longevity Center.

“I think [our connection to technology and smartphones] has those elements. You can see how it can have a negative effect on our lives, even though when used properly it can enhance our lives.”

Using technology and our phones does provide us with some positive effects.

“I think what makes it so compelling is that it accelerates our natural instinct to remain connected to our friends and family. It makes us feel good to have positive feedback from friends and colleagues. And it really empowers us to do more and to get more information – it stimulates our minds,” Dr. Small says. And, since our minds like novelty, technology provides us with the new content we constantly crave.

“It’s not all bad. I actually find social media to have some real positive uses in terms of informing people of what’s happening and keeping in touch with people. But, we have to remember it’s a tool and we have to control it. We can’t let these tools control us,” ,” says John de Graaf, president of Take Back Your Time, a non-profit coalition dedicated to improving lives by eliminating the epidemic of overwork in the U.S. and Canada.

However, you don’t need too much of a good thing.

Tech affects your brain
“It can impair memory because people are distracted and don’t notice what’s going on around them. People have the perception they’re getting more done, but they’re actually making more errors,” he says of using technology to multi-task.

And with that comes stress. Addicts going through withdrawal suffer immense physical and psychological pain until they get their next fix. While addiction to technology may not quite as intense, Dr. Small says there are somewhat similar side effects.

“There’s a certain level of stress when you’re constantly scanning for the next device or outlet to give you the next feel-good hit in your brain,” he says.

Dr. Small isn’t the only expert with this opinion.

“I think these technologies are very addicting and I think they create an underlying level of stress people are not really aware of,” de Graaf says. “I think there’s always a sense of connectedness we expect from people. When we send people a message or text, we almost expect an instantaneous response. We feel like we’re missing something important and think ‘If I don’t stay on top of this all of the time, I may be missing something important.’ It is anxiety producing and ultimately stressful.”

Then there’s the factor of face time, and I’m not talking about the iPhone calling feature.

“It has a negative impact on face-to-face human contact skills. More screen time and more technology time makes it more challenging for people to recognize emotion in others’ faces, maintain eye contact during a conversation and interpret nonverbal [cues],” Dr. Small says.

Those effects aren’t just because you’re too busy scanning through Instagram to look up and have a conversation with someone – it’s actually due to the fact that constant and frequent screen time impacts certain areas of your brain.

According to Dr. Small, the more time a person spends on a particular mental task, the stronger the circuits in the brain become in regards to that task. Similarly, if you neglect certain tasks, the circuits in your brain associated with that task weaken.

“I think it dumbs us down,” de Graaf says. “We have a shorter attention span because everything we’re getting on these devices is quick and short. The ability to concentrate on information that’s any longer becomes affected by that.”

But, despite that, all is not lost.

“You can definitely train your brain,” Dr. Small says, meaning that you have the ability to re-strengthen neglected circuits in your brain by focusing on different tasks. By unplugging from your screens, you can rebuild your ability to recognize emotion in others’ faces, maintain eye contact during a conversation and interpret nonverbal skills.

“The brain can improve if you put it in the right kind of setting,” he says.

Why is unplugging so difficult?
Even if you don’t feel like you have a full-blown addiction to your phone, it is still tough to let go of it, even for just a few short vacation days.

“It’s natural to want to know what’s going on. A lot of the things that go in your everyday life is communicated through the Internet. If you want to be updated and a part of the conversation, it’s hard to let go of that,” Dr. Small says.

But, unplugging is also made difficult by some of our innate human needs and desires.

Unplug: A Case for Ditching Technology on Vacation“We’re social animals – we want to be connected with other people and we want people to like us,” de Graaf says. “It gives us a sense of importance.”

Also, de Graaf points out that our society has gotten to the point where we’re expected to have a smartphone and high-tech devices and to respond to messages and emails right away. We fear losing friendships or business connections if we don’t respond.

The reward of unplugging
At first, you may look at stashing your devices away and disconnecting from Wi-Fi as self-imposed punishment, but you will actually reap some serious benefits.

“There’s an obvious downside that you’re missing out on your vacation,” Dr. Small says of remaining connected. “People go on vacation to relax, unwind and unplug. I always recommend people take breaks…you’ll be more engaged in your experience, enjoying the people you’re with and the scenery around you.”

In fact, if you don’t take time to disconnect, especially while traveling, you are likely doing yourself a disservice.

“I don’t think you ever really have relaxation. You never unwind and that’s what vacation is about,” de Graaf explains of the effect of not unplugging during vacation. “Vacation is about giving us the opportunity to relax, get out of our old ways, spend time with family and friends and connect with them.”

Arianna Huffington’s personal experience unplugging seems to echo Dr. Small and de Graaf’s sentiments.

“Occasionally unplugging from all of our devices and techno-distractions is one of these seemingly small adjustments that actually have the power to transform the way we see the world, live our lives and interact with the people who matter most to us,” she writes on Huffington Post. “The unplugged version of myself was better able to give these things my full attention.”

Was it easy for her to unplug? No. She calls unplugging a “process.” She used no-technology-required work on a book as a distraction from being unplugged, but being in Hawaii posed difficulty for her challenge – she felt the urge to take photos of her beautiful surroundings and kept coming up with story ideas she wanted to run by her editors in an email. But she didn’t, despite worrying about her inbox piling up.

“Unplugging meant rediscovering and savoring the moment for its own sake. Which is to say, taking in a view without tweeting it. Eating a meal without Instagramming it. Hearing my daughters say something hilarious and very shareable without sharing it,” she writes.

“Socrates said ‘the unexamined life isn’t worth living,’ and I think that’s what this is about. Unplugging during vacation gives you the chance to take stock of your life,” de Graaf says.

Unplug: A Case for Ditching Technology on Vacation

Slight Turbulence is Healthy Travel Blog’s cartoon series, provided by Terry LaBan, illustrator for the popular strip, Edge City.

How can you unplug?
In your regular, everyday life at home and at work, unplugging may be especially difficult – you most likely have to be connected to a computer and email for work and you rely on your smartphone in case of an emergency with children or loved ones.

That being said, your next vacation may be the most opportune time to attempt to unplug.

Being in a different location, away from your typical day-to-day life that triggers your tech-connectedness, can help you. If your loved ones are with you, you won’t need to be “on call” for them. You can use the safe in your hotel room to help your case too – stow your phone and devices away in there with other valuables so you won’t be tempted to use them.

If you feel like you can’t go your entire vacation without some check-ins with work or family, you can use features on your devices to help you. Like Huffington did, allot yourself a set amount of time each day or every other day of your vacation to check in.

“Set an alarm [on your device] to tell you when it’s time to take a break,” Dr. Small suggests.

But, completely unplugging from everything may not be the perfect answer either.

“If you want to unplug partially, you can do what I do: I will do a quick email check in the morning and maybe another one before bed and that’s it,” de Graaf says.

And hey, if the co-founder and editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post can do it, so can you. So put your phone, laptop, iPad and other devices away, hit the beach and sip on a fruity drink and relax.