TV Hurts Parent-Teen Bonds — But Not As Much As It Used To

It's not all that surprising that TV time harms teens' relationships with parents. What is a little unusual: the problem seems to be getting better, not worse.

Researchers from the University of Otago in New Zealand surveyed 976 people who were 15 between 1987 and 1988. For every extra hour of TV they watched, they were 13% more likely to have poor relationships with their parents, and a full 24% more likely to have poor relationships with peers. The scientists also talked to a group of 3,043 respondents who were 14-15 in 2004. Among this group, an extra hour of TV made poor relationships with parents 4% more likely, while an extra hour of computer time was associated with a 5% increased risk (presumably personal computers weren't common enough to study in the 1987-1988 sample). For the 2004 teens, more TV time didn't seem to translate to weaker relationships with friends.

Again, it's no shock that TV might damage kids' familial relationships. The researchers noted that teens with TVs in their bedrooms might stay in there watching rather than participating in family meals (though they also acknowledged that the causation arrow might go the other way, with kids with poor relationships turning to TV as a substitute). What improved child-parent bonds: reading and homework. No word on the relationship-building properties of eating brussels sprouts or mowing the lawn.

In all seriousness, though, poor relationships with parents can harm kids. The Guttmacher Institute recently released a survey finding that many parents think they should talk to their preteens about sex, but feel they can't do so — most commonly because they "feel uncomfortable." It's certainly worrisome if kids aren't getting the guidance they need because of insufficient closeness with adults. But it's interesting — and somewhat encouraging — that the negative influence of TV and computers, oft-cited as separating teens today from earlier generations, is declining.

One possible reason for this is that while TV watching was once a refuge for those unsatisfied with their lives (again, meaning poor relationships caused more TV time and not the reverse), now it's something everyone does. Another, more intriguing possibility is that people watch TV — and perhaps use the computer — differently now. Television watching has become a social activity, perhaps more so than it was in years past. It's almost impossible to watch a reality show without criticizing the characters, and today's programs, with their repeated opportunities for texting in your opinion, may be less immersive than ever before. Just as families can now use Facebook to keep in touch, maybe television is now less a distraction from family life and more of an addition to it. This isn't entirely happy news for those nostalgic for family dinners around the dining room table, but it may be heartening for realists who know our glowing screens aren't going away. Perhaps the best we can hope for is to use them in new and less damaging ways.

Teens With More Screen Time Have Lower-Quality Relationships [EurekAlert]
TV Takes Toll On Parent-Teen Relationships [LiveScience]
Many Parents Believe Talking To Preteens About Sex Is Important, Yet Feel Unprepared To Do So [Guttmacher Institute]