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Why you need to ditch the screen when travelling

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I love a good travel movie and it's no coincidence that most of my favourites follow the same pattern: an intrepid adventurer leaves their ordinary life behind to find a new life for themselves in the wilderness. Sometimes their story ends in tragedy, but mostly the protagonist triumphs over adversity to find solace in places far-removed from their ordinary lives.

After all, that's what travel (and I'm not just talking the international kind) is meant to be all about, isn't it? It's an opportunity to take risks, to step outside of your own reality and enter another.

It allows us to put a critical distance between ourselves and all our petty grievances, as our encounters with The World inject a healthy dose of perspective into our lives.

Reese Witherspoon does exactly that in Wild, as she finally finds closure for her mother's death on the Pacific Crest Trail, whilst Bill Murray and Scarlett Johansson exorcise the pent-up anxiety of failing relationships and bad decisions during their brief encounter in Tokyo in Lost in Translation. Such powerful moments of reflection and self-affirmation can only be found on the road, in isolation.

So how does this wash with the social media generation?

by Moyan_Brenn Travel 

Sharing has become a seemingly obligatory part of travelling abroad as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram give roaming individuals their five seconds of fame before we scroll onto the next post on our newsfeeds.

Indeed, anyone who has some experience of foreign travel will have encountered at one time or another the ‘screen-sick’ tourist – someone who is so engrossed by their phone or tablet that they fail to appreciate what is going on around them, no matter how breathtakingly beautiful their surroundings.

We are governed, it seems, by one impulse: the constant need for a dubious kind of self-validation achieved through competitive experience-sharing. 

Which raises a whole load of ethical questions, especially if your exploits abroad have seen you traipsing through the Third World, posing with your arms around the shoulders of numerous 'ethnic' children.

Poverty is not a theme park: photos of you hanging out with the global poor does not make you more attractive. Just take a look at 'Humanitarians of Tinder'.

Ethical worries aside, the problem with social media is that it never truly allows us to disconnect - when 'home' and the (non) lives we have constructed for ourselves on social networks are a mere click away at any given moment, how are we able to attain those long hours of reflection that really make travelling a worth-while experience?

Indeed, I wonder how successful those movies would have been if Reese Witherspoon's character had pulled out her iPhone when the going got tough and asked for someone to come and pick her up; what if Emile Hirsch's character had spent a good half hour uploading selfies of himself canoeing down that river to Facebook, only to be disappointed by how many likes it got; what if Scarlett Jo spent her night on Instagram instead of going down to the hotel bar the one night where she meets Bill Murray?

Ok, so maybe I'm going too far: I'm not saying that social technologies are completely without any advantage for a traveller. WhatsApp, and especially the call function, provides a welcome lifeline to home and can be a blessing when you're navigating unchartered territory alone – I would be a hypocrite to suggest otherwise.

However, the familiar pull to check what’s going on back home can all too easily morph into an unhealthy dependence.

As anyone who has spent time abroad will testify, a bout of feeling miserable and missing home is par for the course of a long-term adventurer. It is during these moments when the pull of social media is at its strongest.

Unfortunately, flicking through Facebook photos of that party which you weren't at because you were away is only going to make you feel worse.

And as Susan Greenfield points out in her book Mind Change: How Digital Technologies are Leaving Their Mark on Our Brains, talking via social media – that is to say, having a conversation by typing, does not activate the parts of the brain which speaking face-to-face and hearing that person’s voice do, and consequently does not stimulate the same ‘feel-good’ effect.

Social media is used as a security blanket by many, but you will feel a lot safer when you fully engage with your environment, especially if you've done your research. Sign up to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office travel advice page here to receive real-time email updates about wherever it is you are travelling, and provide family and friends with details of when and where you'll be beforehand to keep yourself safe without relying on social media.

So ditch Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, stop sharing and start engaging – it will only have a positive impact on your travelling experience. And after all, the internet will still be there when you get back.

Always check the Foreign Office Advice page here for information before you travel, so you can travel responsibly and not be a victim of a technology habit.

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