Disconnect for R & R? That’s LOL

Times Staff Writer

A few days before leaving for a short vacation in Maui, Gina Vivona was on her cellphone, eyes darting between two computer screens in her Burbank home office. She was taking and making phone calls, juggling call waiting, importing, exporting and sending files, burning videos, wrapping up a volunteer Web contribution to the Down Syndrome Assn. of Los Angeles and sending e-mails to her graphic design clients. “I had to let everyone know that I’d be leaving for four days,” she says.

She was preparing a sand, sea and mai tai respite devoid of her usual technology.

Getting ready to get away from it all is a lot of work, and a majority of Americans seem to prefer to take it all with them. Vivona’s commitment to unplug is rare. As the lines between professional, social and family obligations have blurred and all but disappeared, many people have become available all the time. But is it really a vacation if work and social responsibilities, compactly bundled in laptops and cellphones, are packed alongside bathing suits and sunscreen? Psychologists suspect not.


The world of multiple, interconnected e-tools is so new that there isn’t yet any definitive research proving that staying plugged in during vacation time is either good or bad. But a large body of research shows that chronic stress is bad, that multi-tasking on interconnected gizmos can increase stress and that vacations are stress relievers.

“I think the world of BlackBerrys adds to stress,” says Robert Sapolsky, a neurobiologist at Stanford University and author of “Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers.” “Technology, in theory, is supposed to make life easier. But nothing in this realm actually saves us time because the expectations always rise with the output.”

Lisa Merlo, a psychologist at Florida State University, thinks lugging technology along can go one of two ways for vacationers. “Some people actually get more stressed out when they can’t be connected or can’t get a cellphone signal,” she says. “On the other hand, for some it’s almost a relief, like they’ve been given permission to be out of touch.”

Absent only in body

The technological “it all” that vacationers are supposed to be getting away from is hard to escape. Included are computers, BlackBerrys and of course cellphones -- electronics that can keep the mind and spirit at home even when the body is far away.

Research has shown that most people can’t or won’t unplug. EMarketer, an online marketing firm, estimates that among the 147 million Americans who e-mail daily, 77% of those age 22 to 34 check their personal e-mail while on vacation; 39% check their work e-mail. What’s surprising is that even among those who use the Internet at the ages of 60 to 70 -- people who grew up using black rotary-dial telephones -- 60% check personal e-mail while on vacation.

“Electronic messages play on our need to be needed,” says Joe Robinson, Santa Monica life coach and author of “Work to Live.” “When we pull away, some folks need to check in to see who needs them, who wants them, who misses them.”

Today, there’s a rush to communicate thoughts almost at the first firing of a neuron. “Technology gives people an elevated sense of importance,” says Andrew Sachre, a North Hollywood creative consultant who wrote his USC master’s thesis on college students’ relationships with their gadgetry. “People don’t accumulate thoughts throughout the day. It’s all in short-term memory.”

And those thoughts, left unpondered, go out millions of times a day. About 62% of young adults 18 to 27 (called “the thumb generation” in Japan), have sent instant messages, according to a report this month by the Pew Internet & American Life Project. In 2003, 159 million people had cellphones, and each call they made lasted an average of 2.87 minutes, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

“It’s virtually impossible to hide yourself,” says Clifford Nass, communication professor at Stanford University and author of “The Media Equation: How People Treat Computers, Television and New Media Like Real People and Places.” “Even if you want to turn off your cellphone and your e-mail, there’s tremendous pressure not to do that.”

But getting away from those work and social responsibilities is what vacations are for. It can take days to lighten the stress load, weeks to fully recover burned out emotional resources.

A Japanese study of 357 workers, reported in the December 1999 Journal of Environmental Health, found that those who didn’t take any leisure vacation during a year were more depressed than those who did, and those non-vacationers used more sick time.

After a vacation, people feel better. Researchers asked 53 employees in Austria about their frame of mind before and after vacation. In a study published in the April 2000 journal Occupational Medicine, researchers found that after three days away, people had fewer physical complaints, slept better and described their mood as better than before the vacation. Five weeks later, they were still reporting improvements.

“If we’re constantly being pulled away for messages, we’re not fulfilling the recuperative benefits of vacation,” Robinson says.

Electronic etiquette

Of course, being unavailable has become socially rude and, in some worlds, career suicide.

With technological gadgets ever more lightweight and portable, it was hard for Vivona to persuade her husband, Michael Woodrum, a music producer and engineer, to leave his at home. “He said we should take the laptop so we can e-mail pictures home,” she said. Family and friends could wait four days to see pictures, she told him.

But there are ways, even with new standards of etiquette, to politely loosen the tether of communication. Create an automated e-mail response, letting people know when you’ll return. Even people who feel they must take their electronics with them, Merlo says, can set aside a time of day to answer messages and turn equipment off the rest of the day.

However vacationers handle it, courtesy today means letting people know ahead of time that there will be a temporary shift in availability. “We’re all part of a larger social network,” says David Levy, director of the Center for Information and the Quality of Life at the University of Washington. “You have to let people know what you’re doing and why you’re doing it, so friends don’t think you’re shunning them. Or, in the case of work, that you’ve suddenly become irresponsible.”