The more time teens spend watching television or playing on a computer or games console, the less likely they are to be close to their family and friends, new research suggests.

Researchers from the University of Otago in Dunedin, New Zealand, have found that the risk for teens having a low attachment to their parents increased for every hour the teens spent in front of the television, or playing on a computer or gaming console.

Rosalina Richards and colleagues studied 3,043 14- and 15-year-olds in 2004. The teens completed a questionnaire about their free-time habits. They also answered a questionnaire, called the Inventory of Parent and Peer Attachment, which is designed to assess their attachment to parents and peers. The questionnaire asks about such things as mutual trust and quality of communications between teens and their parents and friends.

The researchers also looked at interview responses from 976 individuals who were age 15 years in 1987 to 1988, who were subjected to the same questionnaires.

Overall, the more time teens spent watching television or playing on a computer, the more likely they were to report low attachment to parents. Conversely, teens who spent more time reading and doing homework reported a higher level of attachment to parents.

For every additional hour of television, teens had a 13 per cent increased risk of low attachment to their parents and a 24 per cent increased risk of low attachment to peers.

The links held steady between the genders and even after accounting for family factors, such as socioeconomic status.

The authors say that their findings, published in the Archives of Pediatric and Adcolescent Medicine, should reassure parents who feel guilty that the decision to limit their children's screen time might alienate them from their friends.

"Recommendations that children watch less television are sometimes met with the concern that being unable to discuss popular shows or characters may inhibit peer relationships," the authors write.

"The findings herein do not suggest that less television viewing is detrimental to adolescent friendships."

The authors say the conclusions are important because for teens, "strong attachment to parents is protective against poor psychological health and participation in risky health behaviors."

The authors note that there are lots of reasons that increased screen time hurts family relationships. For example, they found that teens who have TVs in their bedroom not only spend more time watching but also may share fewer meals with family members.

"However, it is also possible that adolescents with poor attachment relationships with immediate friends and family use screen-based activities to facilitate new attachment figures such as online friendships or parasocial relationships with television characters or personalities," the authors write.

"Given the importance of attachment to parents and peers in adolescent health and development, concern about high levels of screen time among adolescents is warranted," they conclude.