My Technology-Free Vacation
I don’t own an iPhone, iPad, or iAnything. I have the same flip phone as my mother, and I purchased a simple phone for emergencies abroad. My Jurassic laptop is held together with duct tape and prayers, and it only works if you keep it plugged in. I think social media is totally groovy (or whatever the kids say these days) but I only get to use Facebook and Twitter when I’m at home on my computer. Oh, how I secretly yearn for an Instagram.
Last week, I celebrated the Spanish vacation Semana Santa (Holy Week) by traveling to Ireland and the United Kingdom with friends. Due to my technology aversion (I swear computers can smell fear), my vacation was completely technology-free. I was able to occasionally check the free-use desktop computers at two of our hostels (mostly to let my parents know I was still alive), but I was without technology and social media for eight days. Dun dun duuuuuuun.
I don’t know how our ancient ancestors (or at least, people our parents’ age) survived without modern technology. Even I, the most useless of media users, felt kind of naked without it. For example, I felt useless and dependent when everyone used their phones to look up attractions, restaurant locations, and transportation information, while I just awkwardly stood there.
I also felt disconnected at times. I had a great time with my friends, but I also wondered how other peoples’ vacations were going, or what friends and family were doing in the US. Whenever we had some downtime in a café with complementary WiFi, everyone was on their phones. What I wouldn’t do for a BuzzFeed quiz right now.
Being completely disconnected comes with a certain degree of anxiety. On the last day of vacation, we flew into Madrid Barajas airport. Instead of returning to Salamanca with them, I had made plans to spend the day in Madrid with another group of friends arriving from Italy. I felt anxious because I had no way to contact them if plans changed or got delayed. I also had to preemptively make sure that I could navigate not only the streets of Madrid, but its seedy underbelly (the Metro system). This is coming from someone who gets lost in her own neighborhood. Just call me Magellan.
In the past decade, media use by American youth has increased by over 20%. Technology and social media are not only fun diversions, but they’re almost essential to 21st century life. However, how is this constant stream of stimulation affecting our brains? Media multitasking is the simultaneous use of multiple forms of technology, and has increased by 119% in the last decade.
Overuse of technology affects cognition. One study found that heavy media multi-taskers process information differently than those less-frequent users. Researchers found heavy media users were more likely to get confused by irrelevant memory representations and get distracted more easily. Studies also show that heavy media use hinders academic performance. Students multitask with media to fulfill perceived needs.
Researchers found that college students media-multitask because it fulfills an emotional need, such as being less stressed while doing homework, even though this comes at a higher cognitive cost. It is interesting that in these situations, emotional gratification isn’t consciously sought, but rather is something that naturally accompanies the media distraction.
Media multi-tasking also affects critical thinking. Technology has enriched the human intellectual experience; but it has also impaired our ability to think deeply. The prevalence of visually-oriented media has diminished the importance of critical reading and focusing on a single task. People have become accustomed to being able to obtain information instantaneously, as opposed to reading, reflecting, and analyzing. Indeed, critical reading stimulates creativity and imagination in a way that visually-oriented real-time media do not.
The constant barrage of social media also negatively affects mental health. One study found that heavy media-multitasking was a predictor of higher depression and social anxiety symptoms, even after controlling for individual personality traits like neuroticism and extraversion.
Media multitasking affects social well-being as early as late childhood. One study examined media use of 8- to 12-year-old girls. Frequent use of personal-interaction based media (such as social networking) was a predictor of negative well-being, whereas traditional face-to-face communication was associated with positive well-being.
Despite the occasional agita my wirelessness gave me, the benefits of not having technology and social media at my disposal outweighed the disadvantages. In my solo expedition through Madrid, I couldn’t use GPS, so I had to rely on Metro diagrams and maps (who knew those still existed!).
Additionally, less absentminded scrolling through the Internet gave me more time to be creative. It was pretty cool to whip out my notebook and write something in the same café that JK Rowling wrote most of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. We had pretty good weather for the UK in the spring. Some of my favorite moments of the vacation were spent in Hyde Park, relaxing and daydreaming.
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Greengard, S., 2009. Are we losing our ability to think critically? Communications of the ACM, 52, 18-19.
Ophir, E., Nass, C., Wagner, A., 2009. Cognitive control in media multitaskers. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 106, 15583–15587.
Pea, R., Nass, C., Meheula, L., Rance, M., Kumar, A., Bamford, H., Nass, M., Simha, Aneesh., Stillerman, B., Yang, S., & Zhou, M., 2012. Media use, face-to-face communication, media multitasking, and social well-being among 8- to 12-year old girls. Developmental Psychology, 48, 327-336.
Wang, Z., & Tchernev, J., 2012. The ‘‘myth’’ of media multitasking: Reciprocal dynamics of media multitasking, personal needs, and gratifications. Journal of Communication, 62, 493-513.