Advances in technology have made it so that we can increasingly go online, play video games and even watch TV from almost anywhere—on a growing range of devices. Yet, does all of this improvement in access come with a cost? To see how increased screen time may impact family and peer relationships, a team of researchers from New Zealand analyzed data from nearly 1,000 teens interviewed in the late 1980s, and 3,000 teens interviewed in 2004. The study, published in the March issue of the journal <Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine showed that, for both periods, adolescents who spend more time watching TV or playing video games were more likely to report lower quality relationships compared with those who logged less screen time.
As part of the Dunedin Multidisciplinary Health and Development Study, 976 adolescents from Dunedin, New Zealand, who were 15-years-old in either 1987 or 1988, reported their daily TV watching habits, and met with researchers who assessed their relationships using a scale derived from the Inventory of Parent and Peer Attachment. As part of a second study, the Youth Lifestyle Study, researchers interviewed 3,043 students who were between the ages of 14 and 15 in 2004. The adolescents were asked about their TV and video game habits, and their relationships were assessed using the same scale as the earlier study.
Researchers found that, in the earlier study, teens who watched more TV were more likely to report lower quality relationships with both parents and peers, compared with those who watched less TV. In fact, for every additional hour of daily TV consumption, researchers noted a 13% increase in the likelihood of low levels of attachment to parents, and a 24% increase in risk of low attachment to peers.
In the second study, they found similar results. Kids who spent more time watching TV or playing video games were less likely to have high levels of attachment to their parents compared with those who spent less time in front of the screen, and those who spent more time reading or doing homework. For every additional hour spent watching TV, teens were 4% more likely to have lower quality relationships with parents. For every additional hour spent playing on the computer, they were 5% more likely to have lower levels of parental attachment.
Of course, a recurring problem with much of the research into the impact of increasing amounts of screen time is taking the step from correlation to actual causation. That is, the link between poorer quality relationships and higher levels of TV and video game use might be down to the fact that kids’ spending more time playing games and less time talking with their family is effectively working to erode those relationships. Yet, it could also be that children who are struggling with depression or have poor levels of attachment to peers and parents for other reasons seek refuge in computer games, online social networks, or TV. Understanding what is behind this correlation, the authors say, is a critical step for future research.