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. Yet another issue is that video gaming has become one of the all-time largest forms of excitement for people of nearly every age. Kids have fun with video games, and adults do, too. The particular XBox 360 is among the favorite gaming systems for those who love to have hundreds of video games available to them, plus who like to play live with other folks all over the world. Thank you for sharing your notions.

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  2. James Briggs says:

    It makes sense. It seems an experiment could be done.

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  3. Aseel Houmse says:

    Although this article has caused me to think of the correlation between TV watching and Autism, I do think that it is a bit too generalized. There are different types and symptoms of Autism out there, so it isn’t the most accurate way to state that one factor immediately leads to another.

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  4. CISCO says:

    yes yes and yes!!…its tv, computers all electronics!!!…with this generation children grow up playing with iphones, ipads, video games..its ridiculous!!..what ever happen to wooden blocks and board games?…my son is a perfect example….he was diagnosed with autism around 1 1/2 years old…i was the one that brought it to his doctors attention..i was doing research on the internet and figured it out on my own..he had all the symptoms: no eye contact, constant flapping of the arms, spinning, repetitiveness…NOW…growing up my son watched wayyy too much television..he was obsessed with mickey mouse and other cartoons..i try not to kill myself thinking about it but i let him watch it because it made him happy…SOOO….i went on Youtube and searched autistic children..i kid you not!!!… 90% of those children were stuck in front of a tv or computer!!!…the very next day i got rid of every tv in the house!! me he went crazy for the first week..screaming, yelling, crying, no was a nightmare!!..he is 2 now and all i have to say is…I have my son back!!! it didnt happen over night trust me it takes time….the thing is..austic children throw the worst tantrums!..and parents do not want to deal with it so they give them their way…they give them their tv, video games, ipad just to shut them up..i was very lucky to catch it at a young age because i was in control..he couldnt tell me “dad put on the the tv!”..he was too young…but ANYWAYS..anybody that has questions please feel free to email me..

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    • Megan says:

      I agree….I put my 2 in front of tv as babies too…I don’t deny it! They are autistic. A very low functioning one (completely nonverbal) and a higher functioning one.

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  5. Wendell says:

    Why so much contraversey over television causing autism? It is a billion dollar a year industry for one. Who wants to give up the electronic baby sitter for another. What would most people do without it? They could get bored. Could they live without it? Like any other addiction you bet they can. If it does not help the children, it won’t do any cognitive harm, physical mabe (ie play in traffic).

    The American Pediatric Society strongly recommends no television until at least age two. Not even background sound in another room. Face it, television is designed to recapture attention of all ages every five seconds. Do you think that kind of training will not have any effect. It will help a child zone out faster than anything. How often do parents with sick children turn on the television while nursing a sick child through the night? My guess is all who watch television regularly.

    If you are reading this you have a world of information at your finger tips. Do a google search on autism and television. See for your self what the American Pediatric Society says about televison and autism and attention deficit dissorder. Read about the Amish and autism. Dan Olmstead originaly said they don’t have it at all, new study says one in two hundred seventy one. Still well below the national average.

    I would love to see a comprehensive study done on childrens enviroment starting at conception. It is a well proven fact unborn children do learn. If the television is not part of it fine.If putting it out of the house is a huge problem it may be a bigger problem than it it is given credit for.

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    • Megan says:

      I agree. And whenever people get really defensive I’m even more suspicious that they are addicted and in denial a bit.

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  6. Jason says:

    I have three young children. We have gradually been sucked into the video abyss of childrens videos. We recently haulted almost all videos because one of my children, the youngest, was abnormally entranced by the videos the others were watching. I had no idea of the published connection between TV and autism. However, the correlation between what I was seeing in my youngest kid and the signs/symptoms of autism was enough that it prompted me to do a google search on the conection between the two. I love the saying “Don’t let your good judgement be swayed by the evidence (or lack of it).” There is a wealth of strong scientific evidence that TV is not good for children at any age. Add in this very concerning statistical analysis on autism with my observations as a parent… I may just toss all of the videos and the TV in the trash when I get home.

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  7. Linda says:

    I’m really tired of hearing TV get such a bad rap. I’m a 58 year old successful neurotypical only child that was raised on excessive amounts of TV. My children are neurotypical college graduates and were raised on TV. We are a family that enjoys TV everything from sitcoms to documentaries to sports. We watch “excessive” amounts. My granddaughter is diagnosed with autism and her parents do not have a cable TV subscription and have always (prior to diagnosis) greatly limited her TV watching. So there you go. I have to ask, how is it different if you are watching Polar Express on a big screen TV with your children, or reading the book? Really think about it, they are both watching and learning about something exciting and different. We are watching it with them and talking about it during and after the movie. I don’t see how there is such a huge difference in their developing brains? I feel autism is such a confusing and anxiety provoking diagnosis that people have to pigeon hole it and make it make sense… and TV is the bad guy. Autism is on the rise, but I seriously doubt TV is to blame. We are a techie family with tablets and laptops and large screen TVs and if anything I believe it develops the brain, not harms it.

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  8. Patrick says:

    Are there any empirical studies that focus not on the content or duration of television viewing, but rather the impact of television the light and image projection device? We know that strobe effects can trigger epileptic seizure, is it a stretch to suspect that the television’s refresh rate and frame rate frequencies can produce similar traumatic brain events to someone with a predisposition to autism? Young childrens’ developing brains appear significantly more susceptible to the onset of autism than older developed brains teenage brains – as evidenced by the ages when children begin demonstrating autistic symptoms. Without the developed neural connectors that make possible a native language for instance, any native language, could it be that very young brains especially can be traumatized by the flickering light and images of television projection? Are televisions, the device, dangerous to young brains?

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