When teens spend too much time on the computer or in front of the TV, their relationships suffer, a new study suggests. The results show that the more "screen time" teens clock, the more likely they are to have difficulty forming a relationship with their parents and friends.
Conversely, spending more time reading and doing homework was linked to a better relationship with parents.
However, the findings hinge on teen self-reports, which can be skewed, so more research is needed to confirm the results.
Studying screen time
More and more technologies these days seem to keep us staring at screens, from cell phones to portable computers to gaming consoles. But previous research on how these activities affect our relationships have had mixed results.
The new results are based on two studies on New Zealand teens, one conducted in between 1987 and 1988 and the other in 2004, which involved more than 4,000 total participants. In the 2004 study, 3,043 students aged 14 to 15 answered survey questions about how many hours they spent engaging in screen-time activities, including watching TV, playing video games and using a computer. The young teens were also assessed on the quality of their relationships with parents and peers.
For every hour spent watching TV, the teens' risk for having a low quality attachment to their parents increased by 4 percent. And for computer use, the risk increased 5 percent per hour. Low quality attachment means the teens had difficulty forming relationships and emotional bonds with others.
However, the researchers didn't find a connection between increased TV time and a poor relationship with friends.
The 1987-1988 study included 976 15-year-olds who were asked about their TV habits and parent/peer relationships.
For every additional hour spent watching TV, the teens were 13 percent more likely to have a low quality relationship with parents, and 24 percent more likely to have poor relationships with peers.
Why TV time hurts relationships
While some people have argued that teens who watch less TV might suffer socially, since they aren't able to discuss popular TV shows with their friends, the current findings suggest this isn't always the case, the researchers say.
The researchers still aren't sure exactly why more TV and computer time equals poor relationships, especially with parents. One idea is that tube-time could keep teens hibernating away in their bedrooms, missing out on sharing meals and other activities with family members. Or, those with poor attachments to their parents and friends might instead seek out one-sided relationships with TV characters, or turn to online for relationships.
Future studies should also look into why there was such a different between the two generations in terms of how screen time affected their relationships, particularly with peers, the researchers say.
The study was conducted by researchers at the University of Otago and University of Auckland, both in New Zealand. The results are published in the March issue of Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.
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Rachael is a Live Science contributor, and was a former channel editor and senior writer for Live Science between 2010 and 2022. She has a master's degree in journalism from New York University's Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program. She also holds a B.S. in molecular biology and an M.S. in biology from the University of California, San Diego. Her work has appeared in Scienceline, The Washington Post and Scientific American.