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The Power of Screen-Free Togetherness

Build your relationships without constant distractions.

Key points

  • Learning and social abilities are more likely to grow in a screen-free environment.
  • If we make a commitment to be present with ourselves and others, true learning is still possible.
  • Knowledge isn't enough—we also need to develop socioemotional abilities.

My father once attended a Harvard alumni reunion during which he listened to a speech by a former Harvard president.

“I’ve spoken with many alumni here and many of us are divorced or just alone and miserable,” one alumnus shared with the president during the Q&A. “Shouldn’t Harvard be teaching students more about how to develop healthy relationships?”

“Harvard is an academic institution,” replied the speaker. “That is not the role of Harvard.” My father returned home, disappointed.

Freedom 2.0

Let’s now travel from Boston to Augusta, Georgia. Golf fans attending the recent Masters tournament in Augusta were inculcated into a tradition that has been honored since 1933: the Masters tournament is a screen-free environment.

Unsplash / Shubham Bochiwal
Enjoy, relax, and feel the music—the moment you are experiencing.
Source: Unsplash / Shubham Bochiwal

Yes, that’s correct—attendees are not permitted to bring their phones onto the premises. (Courtesy phones without Internet access are provided for urgent calls only.)

“It’s almost as if you’re hiking up into the high altitude of the mountains, where there’s no cell service,” one fan proclaimed. “That’s the only way to check out. Or you come to the Masters.”

“You feel protected,” shared a woman at her 13th Masters tournament. “The focus is completely on the game, there is no discussion of world events, everybody is present.”

Another fan who has been attending for 50 years invited a friend to come for her first time and experience a taste of freedom. “For her, the liberation of being without a cell phone was absolutely spectacular,” he shared. “She just marveled at the fact she’d been without a phone and out of contact for three hours. That was wonderful.”

The power of collective presence could be expanded to other venues, such as sports, dance, music, and theatrical events. Have you been to a concert and noticed how many people are recording it with their phone rather than truly experiencing and enjoying it?

The acquisitive instinct—the desire to accumulate videos to view and show others in the future (if you ever have time, which is unlikely)—trumps the desire to just enjoy, relax, and feel the music.

Why have we all become camerapeople, anyway? Thousands of private recordings of what you are watching are available on YouTube anytime; you really don’t need your own version. You can make the transformative decision to experience and assimilate what you paid your hard-earned money for instead of making so much effort to record and acquire it.

Source: Unsplash / Priscilla Du Preez
Learning and social abilities are more likely to grow in a screen-free environment.
Source: Unsplash / Priscilla Du Preez

Knowledge Isn’t Enough

It seems the Harvard president my father listened to did not consider a University of Chicago study in which Harvard also participated. This longitudinal study of more than 7,000 engineers discovered that knowledge of engineering accounted for about 14 percent of an engineer’s future success.

The other 85 percent of career success—even in a highly technical occupation such as engineering—is attributable not to technical skills, but to personal character and the capacity to develop healthy, sustainable relationships with others.

How do we build character and learn how to develop better relationships with other people, such as in a shared learning environment? Research I have reviewed suggests that these abilities are more likely to grow in a screen-free environment not unlike what the Masters tournament has been able to create in Georgia, where our weapons of mass distraction are left at the door.

If we commit to be fully present with others in such an environment, it is still possible for true learning—which is both cognitive and socioemotional—to occur.


Mann, C. (1918). A study of engineering education: Prepared for the Joint Committee on Engineering Education of the National Engineering Societies.

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