TV’s Relationship to Mental Retardation and Autism

(Photo: Library of Congress)

TV is bad for children.  Wait, no it’s not.  Yes, it is!   And it’s really bad for their hearts!

Here’s the latest paper on the topic, from Michael Waldman, Sean Nicholson, and Nodir Adilov.  Using a natural experiment to rule out the possibility of reverse causation, the authors find “a strong negative correlation between average county-level cable subscription rates when a birth cohort is below three and subsequent mental retardation diagnosis rates, but a strong positive correlation between the same cable subscription rates and subsequent autism diagnosis rates.”  

In other words, TV watching decreases the rate of mental retardation but increases the rate of autism.  The authors hypothesize that, consistent with earlier research, “for the typical child television watching at age two improves cognitive development and decreases diagnoses of mental retardation.”

In contrast, TV might be particularly bad news for kids vulnerable to autism:

[W]e believe the most likely explanation is that there is a genetically vulnerable group for which early childhood television watching serves as a trigger for autism. It has long been known that autism has a strong genetic component (see e.g., Rimland (1964) and Folstein and Rutter (1977)). So one explanation for our autism results is that at least for some children diagnosed with autism it is not the genetics alone which triggers the condition, but rather the genes create a vulnerability to autism that is sometimes triggered by early childhood television watching.

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  1. Enter your name... says:

    Cable subscriptions require money. Those with more money can get more doctor time to diagnose autism. Sorry, but I believe autism is junk medicine. I do have empathy for those with really disturbed children.

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    • Megan says:

      Those who are wealthier may have more electromagnetic radiation in their homes than those who are poor (or Amish) and it’s possible that the electromagnetic radiation exposure to infant or fetus is partially responsible.

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  2. Janet Walter says:

    It’s hard to say that whether TV is good or bad for children but it’s all depends upon how the children’s are taking up it. I agree that TV watching decreases the rate of mental retardation but increases the rate of autism. Thanks for sharing


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  3. ratih says:

    it’s quite interesting. However, many people said that high frequency of watching TV will affect the social skill of children. they become indifferent with environment, physically weaker than those who seldom watch TV.

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  4. awaysaway says:

    This is incredibly weak. This gives science a bad name.

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  5. Katie Daniel says:

    I do not agree with this. I believe there could be many other factors going into this. Possibly that autistic children enjoy vegging out in front of the television? I think this statistic is just there to scare people.

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  6. Em says:

    Correlation or not, what you see on TV influences you. That is how you learn. And what you learn may be good material or bad material.

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  7. Alex says:

    four arguments for the elimination of television by jerry mander

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  8. J says:

    Do they define exactly what they mean by “autism”? The definition has changed quite a bit over time.

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