Greenwich research reveals the emotional rollercoaster of digital detox


Research finds that leaving behind digital tech while on holiday results in initial anxiety and frustration but a sense of liberation

New research shows tourists who travel technology-free can suffer withdrawal symptoms akin to giving up smoking or drinking.

The study, which was carried out by the University of Greenwich, the University of East Anglia (UEA), and Auckland University of Technology (AUT), investigated how engaging in digital-free tourism impacted travellers' holiday experiences.

Participants in the study agreed to restrict their access to technologies including mobile phones, laptops, tablets, the Internet, social media and navigation tools. The researchers examined participants' emotions before they disconnected, during their disconnection, and after they reconnected.

The research, which comes as the demand for so-called 'digital detox' holidays is on the rise, has been published in the Journal of Travel Research.

The findings show many of the travellers initially experienced symptoms of anxiety and frustration, but also excitement. Over time, these feelings developed into increasing levels of acceptance, enjoyment and even liberation.

Lead author Dr Wenjie Cai, from the University of Greenwich Business School, said that the research offers valuable insights into the growing desire by travellers to break away from the constant connectivity offered by technological affordances.

"The increasing popularity of digital-free tourism shows people are growing tired of having non-stop access to information and services. It is helpful to see the emotional journey that travellers without technology are experiencing."

The study also revealed that travellers initially missed the convenience and security of Google Maps and perceived connectivity of Facebook. However, this anxiety morphed into a positive experience for many.

Dr Lena Waizenegger, from AUT, said: "Once they overcame the initial feelings of concern associated with disconnection, a number of the participants learned to navigate with paper maps and gained the confidence to ask other people for help with directions. That led to a much more interactive experience and a greater feeling of being connected to other people – which ultimately became a highlight of their holiday."

Dr McKenna, from UEA's Norwich Business School, said the findings have valuable implications for tour operators and destination management organisations when developing 'off-the-grid' packages or tech-savvy tour products.

"Understanding what triggers consumers' emotions can help service providers to improve products and marketing strategies," said Dr McKenna. "The trips our travellers took varied in terms of lengths and types of destinations, providing useful insights into various influencing factors on emotions."

Once reconnected, many participants said they were overwhelmed by the slew of messages and notifications received while disconnected. Some resolved to have another digital detox in the future.

In total 24 participants from seven countries travelled to 17 countries and regions during the study. A number of New Zealanders took part, visiting Tonga, Fiji, the Cook Islands and Abel Tasman National park. Other participants travelled from Australia to various destinations. Most disconnected for more than 24 hours and data was collected via diaries and interviews.

'Turning it off: Emotions in Digital-Free Travel' Wenjie Cai, Brad McKenna and Lena Waizenegger, is published in the Journal of Travel Research on 14 August 2019.