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.


Heidi

Not the most compelling correlation I've ever seen. Isn't it also likely that children with autism just really enjoy (fixate on) television? Perhaps they are not autistic because they watch a lot of TV, but rather they watch a lot of TV because they are autistic.

PD

The correlation to autism is not to TV watching, but cable subscription rates. I doubt autistic kids are the ones ordering the cable subscription.

CS

Utter nonsense. Do these researchers understand that this kind of sloppy research affects (and can potentially harm) real people, already dealing with child development issues?

As the parent of an autistic child, I'm deeply offended by such a cavalier approach to the topic.

I would also suggest that Freakonomics blog editors treat some subjects with a little more sensitivity.

Jack Skellington, ESQ

Hi, CS:

-----Utter nonsense. Do these researchers understand that this kind of sloppy research affects (and can potentially harm) real people, already dealing with child development issues?----

It's not particularly sloppy, actually. I'm going to assume you didn't read the paper. If you did, could you explain the portion of the methodology you take issue with?

-----As the parent of an autistic child, I’m deeply offended by such a cavalier approach to the topic.-----

I say this with all respect and empathy: Your experience as a parent to a child diagnosed with autism couldn't be less relevant here. One of the most dangerous phenomenons of recent times is the societal validation of people's opinions simply because of their proximity to an event.

You gain no special insight into the epidemiology of autism by parenting an autistic child. You do acquire an almost insurmountable personal bias, but that doesn't add value to the discussion, it removes it.

----I would also suggest that Freakonomics blog editors treat some subjects with a little more sensitivity.----

I would suggest this is an astonishingly selfish point of view? Is there really any other group in modern times treated more gently and with more respect than the parents of autistic children? You could fill libraries with the softball puffy news reports of how noble parents of autistic children are and how tirelessly they work to care for their special magic fragile children.

That's not the reality, though, is it? The reality is that autistic children are just children. Some are special, some are average, some are decidedly below average, in every quantifiable way. The same is true of, of course, of their parents. Some parents of Autistic children are enlightened genius saint-like beings. Some of them are sadistic rapists and murderers. Just like the rest of the population.

To stay on point, an economics blog that was sensitive to the populations being studied in a paper would have no posts. Have enough self respect to argue the merits of something you disagree with. Your present appeal to pity is useless and embarrassing for us all.

Hi, Heidi

----Not the most compelling correlation I’ve ever seen. Isn’t it also likely that children with autism just really enjoy (fixate on) television? Perhaps they are not autistic because they watch a lot of TV, but rather they watch a lot of TV because they are autistic.----

I think these are interesting points. Given the nature of Autism diagnoses in the time-frame of the study, I think another important question is if the correlation is actually that households with more TV viewership are more likely to investigate a diagnosis of Autism (and thus end up with more diagnosed children by virtue of *opportunities to diagnose* as opposed to an actual per capita increase in symptoms). It "feels" like this may be the case, it would be interesting to attempt to control for that (but astonishingly difficult, given how hard it is to quantify).

Hi, Dianne,

----Sorry, but this tv correlation and autism causation is hogwash – as is the genetics theory. I have identical twins – one with autism and one not – same genes. I believe autism’s cause is an assualt of some sort on the immune system from a virus or other environmental agent----

See above comments about being the parent of an Autistic child and it's lack of impact on the importance of your opinion.

Also: In the future, you may want to avoid beginning proclamations as to the nature of a disease with phrases like "I believe". I believe that many people who value a degree of intellectual rigor will stop reading right about at the second "e" in believe.

----I would say that kids with autism are visually motivated and driven – so they are drawn to the TV and computers. Lots of kids & adults think visually in pictures and have photographic memories. So kids with autism are drawn to the TV.-----

I would say that's a wild guess on your part. "Photographic Memory" is a long disproved concept best reserved for TV sit-coms and mystery novels. Autistic people, by diagnostic definition (which is likely changing, incidentally) tend to focus more intently on individualistic non social activities. If they are "drawn to TV", it's likely a function of this characteristic moreso than the visual images. I'd guess that you find that your autistic twin is also "drawn to" other individual activities that don't involve visual stimulus. Repeating memorized words, perhaps. Just a guess, of course.

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RNS

Jack, while you work on debating this to the hilt and crushing "every point deemed biased by an Autistic parent", care to elaborate on your contribution to this paper or the article?

Diane

Sorry, but this tv correlation and autism causation is hogwash - as is the genetics theory. I have identical twins - one with autism and one not - same genes. I believe autism's cause is an assualt of some sort on the immune system from a virus or other environmental agent

I would say that kids with autism are visually motivated and driven - so they are drawn to the TV and computers. Lots of kids & adults think visually in pictures and have photographic memories. So kids with autism are drawn to the TV.

James

And I would say - likewise based on a sample size of one, namely myself - that there are autistic spectrum people who dislike TV (I've never owned one), and are attracted to computers primarliy because we can make a more than decent living writing software.

Dutch

People that can't afford cable probably can't afford the tests required for a diagnosis. I'd like to know the rate of car ownership to autism. Basically, the more you can afford, the more likely you are to engage the services of a professional.

Enter your name...

Of course, the public schools are required to provide such testing for free, so the personal ability to pay for testing might not matter in the end. It might change the age at which the label is settled, but that's probably it.

There are other factors, though. Rates vary noticeably by community for reasons that probably have more to do with the person in charge of ordering the testing and the incentives to tick the box for "please give us a tiny bit of extra funding because this child with some other, non-autistic disability has a few minor behaviors that happen to appear in autistic kids".

IE

We might be sitting on a gold mine of data that may help accelerate this research and/or perhaps point to other directions.
Google has accumulated an enormous database of internet user behavior over the last decade. Among other things they store search history for users, along with the records of what videos the users watched on YouTube.

So if we look at the users who search for autism-related items (doctors, treatment, support groups, etc.) and check whether they had been actively watching toddler-age videos on YouTube 1-2 years earlier, it’s possible that we may find a correlation.

This TV-trigger theory may or may not be a long shot, but there could be other environmental factors that contribute to autism. And it could be possible to identify them by mining the Google search history database.
E.g. were the parents of autistic kids more likely to google for house paint before the birth? For new carpet? For artificial fireplace logs? No matter how ridiculous these ideas sound, at this point we are don’t know what environmental factors contribute to autism. Any correlation may hold a clue to solving this $35 billion per year problem.

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Allie

I don't know if this study is necessarily accurate because it is based on cable subscriptions. I think that children with autism, like most children, seem to watch a lot of television, but just based on cable subscriptions, the correlation is not very clear.

Dani

I remember reading somewhere that there's a correlation between amounts of rainfall and autism rates. Maybe people in rainy areas are more likely to have cable TV.

HV Cheah

Actually, I had a question in mind kind of related to this: how much of published medical information is actually reliable? Considering they seem to self-contradict every few months.

Did our forefathers really live healthier lives so that they were in rugged good health and lived to a ripe old age without need for all our present-day medicines and suppliments? Is our health really in such a bad state? Or is any of it just plain, good ol' fearmongering?

So, really, how reliable is all of this?

Enter your name...

Well, I wouldn't want to attempt to answer your main question, but I can tell you that back in 19th century, before industrial agriculture, when everything was 100% organic because there were no other options, Americans were very concerned about how awful their diets were, how impure and unhealthy the food was, how sickly the next generation was going to be because of poor diets, etc. The writings from the time sound very much like the writing of today, only with certain keywords changed.

Rev Graham (of the Graham cracker, which was originally an unsweetened whole wheat cracker) would not have been so popular if people hadn't been concerned. In American culture, a healthy diet is a sign of moral fitness, not of physical fitness.

Enter your name...

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.

Megan

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.

Janet Walter

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

Janat
www.drugstorediary.com

ratih

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.

awaysaway

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

Katie Daniel

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.

Em

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.

Alex

four arguments for the elimination of television by jerry mander

J

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

Gaynell Turdo

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.

James Briggs

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

Aseel Houmse

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.

CISCO

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!!..trust me he went crazy for the first week..screaming, yelling, crying, no sleep..it was a nightmare!!..he is 2 now and all i have to say is…I have my son back!!!..now 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

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.