Tech-addicted travelers ‘disconnect to reconnect’

Camp Grounded, digital detox
Participants in a recent "summer camp for adults" sponsored by Digital Detox happily gave up their personal electronics for four days of camp games, quiet time and actual face-to-face interaction.

There’s no need to call Drs. Drew, Oz or Phil, but if you’ve ever spent a vacation continuously checking your email, updating your status or Instagramming your meals, it may be time for an intervention.

The good news is that at a time when many travel companies have essentially become enablers — 4G! Free Wi-Fi! — a handful are encouraging guests to turn off their phones, stow their laptops and tablets and voluntarily embrace a technology-free “digital detox.”

“The fact that we can now carry a computer in our pocket that is more powerful than what was used to fly astronauts to the moon is amazing,” said Marsha Egan, life coach and author of “Inbox Detox and the Habit of E-Mail Excellence”. “The ability to be connected anywhere, anytime, 24/7, is both a blessing and a curse.”

It’s also, in many cases, self-induced. According to a May 2012 report from Google, 80 percent of smartphone owners never leave home without their device and 66 percent use them to access the Internet at least once a day.

Furthermore, 67 percent of cellphone owners find themselves checking their phone for messages, alerts, or calls — even when they don’t notice their phone ringing or vibrating, according to Pew Internet. Twenty-nine percent describe their phone as “something they can’t imagine living without."

'There was a little shock'
And social media only exacerbates the situation, says Levi Felix, founder of The Digital Detox (motto: Disconnect to Reconnect), which offers no-gadgets-allowed events and retreats in the San Francisco Bay area. “You post a picture or status update and then you get a beep or a buzz saying you got a ‘like’ or a retweet, so you go back to your phone. It’s a constant feedback loop and you get sucked in.”

Image: Digital Detox
At Digital Detox, participants must give up their electronic tethers.

For Felix, who spent several years working in high-tech before burning out, the solution is to disconnect completely, albeit temporarily. To that end, participants in the company’s events surrender their phones, tablets, even their watches, upon arrival, opting instead for hikes, yoga sessions and other non-pixelated activities.

“We want to give people the opportunity to turn off their devices for a little while and re-evaluate what life is like when you’re not looking at a screen,” he said.

For Forest Bronzan, CEO of Email Aptitude, a San Francisco startup, that was exactly what he was looking for when he handed over his phone at the start of a Digital Detox retreat last summer.

“It’s one thing to say I’m going to take a day and try not to check email but at the camp, everybody is doing the same thing so it sort of forces you to unwind,” he said. “The first day, there was a little shock — wow, I’m not actually in front of a computer or my phone — but by the end, you just wanted to stay there.”

Root canal vs. working vacation
While Digital Detox is about total disengagement, other companies take a less intensive approach. Seattle-based Via Yoga, for example, doesn’t forbid personal electronics during its week-long yoga and surfing retreat, but it does offer a 15-percent discount to guests who are willing to surrender their electronics for the duration of their stay.

“We suggest to everyone that they leave them at home so they have the time and space to enjoy their vacation,” said owner Susie Cavassa. “But it just seems harder and harder for people to unplug.”

Image: Digital Detox
At Digital Detox events, attendees who want to share their thoughts are encouraged to type, not text.

One reason, of course, is that many people find it difficult to leave work behind.

“There’s this expectation about work today that we’re always connected,” said Ilene Philipson, a clinical psychologist and author of “Married to the Job.” “If they don’t check their email while they’re out of town, they come back to thousands of messages.”

In fact, according to a recent Harris Poll, 54 percent of respondents said that their employer expects them to work during vacations. Adding to the pain, so to speak: 51 percent said they would rather get a root canal than work on those vacations.

'No cellphones in the bedroom'
“It seems employees are actually working harder when they're on vacation than when they're in the office," said Terrie Campbell, vice president of strategic marketing for Ricoh Americas Corp., which commissioned the survey. “They’re not able to disengage from their work either physically or mentally.”

Given the ubiquity of — and our increasing dependence on — digital devices, no one interviewed for this story suggests that people permanently disengage from technology. For those who can’t escape working while on vacation, Egan suggests setting aside specific times to do so rather than trying to multi-task during what is supposed to be family time.

And even proponents of total but temporary detox vacations insist they’re not anti-technology Luddites, but rather, hoping to gain insights that will help them navigate the work/life balance a bit better.

“For work, I’m much more cognizant of the need to recharge,” said Bronzan. “It may not be a digital detox twice a year but it’s taking an extra day a week and not be 100-percent consumed 24/7.

“On a personal note, my wife and I now have a ‘no cellphones in the bedroom’ rule.”

Rob Lovitt is a longtime travel writer who still believes the journey is as important as the destination. Follow him on Twitter.