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Travel may be the key to ending your unhealthy love affair with your electronic devices

Travel may be the key to ending your unhealthy love affair with your electronic devices
Smartphones are great, but not everywhere. It may be time to cut down on our screen time, especially while traveling. (Nico De Pasquale Photography / Getty Images)

Some drowned. Some fell. Others were killed in car accidents.

The culprit: usually a smartphone in pursuit of a selfie.

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Drownings and falls are among the leading causes of selfie-related deaths; many car accidents can be traced to distracted driving, thanks to the need to respond to texts and email.

The smartphone has become a fatal attraction.

It also may be guilty of lesser crimes that affect even more travelers: the ability to subvert or even destroy your time away.

It's bad enough that we don't take all the vacation time we're allotted. More than half of all Americans leave vacation on the table, about 705 million days not taken, according to Project: Time Off, which chronicles our troubles (and recently, small triumphs) in our efforts to recreate.

Californians use 16.7 vacation days a year, but they leave about 30% of their time off on the table. Where you really want to be for vacation earnings alone is Colorado, whose workers average almost 28 days of vacation, best in the nation, but they don't use all that they get either. In fact, they give up almost eight of those days.

Here's the compounding issue: Even when we use our vacation days, we may not be paying attention to the people or places around us. But just as we can squander our vacation by not being mindful, travel also may be the key to getting out from under the king's thumb.

That's how Blake Snow, author of the book "Log Off: How to Stay Connected After Disconnecting" (2017), refers to those electronic devices that tend to rule our lives like despotic monarchs.

They weren't just ruling his life, he said; they were ruining it. As a journalist, he said, he felt the "pressure every minute to be informed all the time." Even though he was constantly on his phone and devices, he worried that failure to always be in touch with the world and everyone in it hurt his prospects.

"That wasn't true," he said. The opposite was. Once he realized this and set electronic boundaries, his work and his life improved, he said

It all began with what he called his "Montana Moment," a vacation that turned into a life-changing event, he wrote in "Log Off." He and his family and friends were in Big Sky Country and unable to connect. This was, he said, after 1,300 consecutive days of his being in touch, digitally speaking.

They put down their phones and began talking with one another, playing board games, appreciating nature. "And our immediate lives were better because of it," he wrote in the book.

Now his family does what he calls a "digital fast" twice a year: a week with no electronic anything. His children don't like it, but this reset helps put connectivity in perspective.

You almost can't avoid being online when you're a traveler. Google Maps help you navigate, and booking a last-minute hotel at a discount price or finding a restaurant near you is infinitely easier with a smartphone.

But you don't need to respond to every text or notification, Snow said. You need not be your phone's loyal subject.

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"Deep down I do believe that for many of us working professionals the biggest thing is coming to terms [with the idea] that the world will go on without me," he said in an interview. "Once we come to grips with that, we're in a better position to put our phones ... down.”

Snow called incessant phone checking a compulsion that rewards the checker, creating incentive to repeat that behavior.

But our behavior with electronics also mimics some characteristics of addiction, said Dr. Gary Malone, an addiction psychiatrist and medical director of psychiatry for Texas Health Arlington Memorial Hospital and Texas Health Mansfield Recovery and Wellness Center.

One key to determining whether you have a problem: Do your devices get in the way of what you want to do with your life? If you're spending all your time on the phone or your gaming laptop and not paying attention to relationships, that speaks volumes about your priorities, Malone said.

And if you decide to stop? Unlike addiction, reducing or cutting off usage does not create a physical withdrawal, he said.

Snow said that while in Montana he had to readjust his thinking to find analog delights such as a hobby or a sport.

That isn't substituting one obsession for another, he said. The internet is infinite, but something such as tending your roses (my analog passion) has an end point (at least, I hope it does) unlike the infinite scroll of, say, Facebook.

How do you begin to find your way back? Snow suggested taking a vacation, which makes you rediscover what you enjoy. You get to try other things and see or rediscover what delights and enriches you in a different environment.

That's partly why Wyndham Grand hotels have created in five properties phone-free zones at their restaurants and at their pools. Participation is voluntary, and it offers a reward for doing so: possibly winning a free five-night stay.

The problem with digital became apparent, said Lisa Checchio, Wyndham's chief marketing officer, when one property reported it had to add chairs by the pool. It used to be that when you were on vacation, the first thing you'd do is run to the pool and jump in because you cleverly were wearing your swimsuit under your clothes, she said.

But nowadays, she said, "Parents and kids were sitting poolside, on devices," which explained the seating deficit.

Now there are phone-free zones, but if you're not going to participate, that's OK too.

"The intention is not to judge," she said. "The best amenity we can give our families is time."

Whether you scale back your use or quit altogether, you will get back those minutes and maybe hours. They are ours to spend as we wish.

"That's the big thing," Snow said. "You're participating in active, not passive, experiences. It's really powerful."

The king is dead. Long live the new ruler of your life: digital sanity.

Have a travel dilemma or question? Write to travel@latimes.com. We regret we cannot answer every inquiry.

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