Research: Does Television Cause Autism?

A fascinating study from Cornell used some interesting data to identify a potential connection between autism and television watching among children under 3-years-old.
At birth, the human brain is still preparing for full operation. As a child learns, synapses literally form between neurons in the brain. Less used synapses fall away while frequently used ones become permanent.

The road map for the human brain is developed in the first few years after birth. Given that we as a species evolved in a three-dimensional world, researchers wondered if brain development might be harmed in toddlers plopped down in front of two-dimensional TV screens.

They looked at four US states where cable TV was introduced around 1980 and compared autism rates between counties that had cable and those that did not. There isn’t a perfect way to gauge TV watching, but Nickelodeon debuted in 1979 as the first kid-oriented station. Their belief is that TV viewing among kids was lower prior to 1980.

(Aside from Saturday morning cartoons and reruns of I Love Lucy when I was 5-years-old, I can attest to the completely boring nature of daytime TV. I did not watch soap operas with my mother. After school cartoons came later.)

Next, they gauged time spent watching TV with the idea that kids watch more TV on rainy and snowy days, and so they compared weather between the counties. They found a statistically significant rise in autism in counties with cable, and the more time spent watching TV, the more likely kids were to exhibit autism disorders.

The researchers concluded, "roughly 17 percent of the growth in autism in California and Pennsylvania during the 1970s and 1980s was due to the growth in cable television." They don’t claim TV is the cause of autism, but that it is a "critical piece of evidence."

The researchers couldn’t rule out potentially related factors, such as the known issue that indoor air quality is often worse than outdoors. Kids watching TV presumably do it indoors.

This research comes with a BIG HOWEVER. The Slate article and other news reports I’ve looked at do not state that the research has been published in a peer-reviewed journal. The research will be presented on Friday at a conference of the National Bureau of Economic Research. The university researchers are not medical; their specialty seems to be economics and business management. Though, their research is largely statistical and analytical in nature.

I agree with the American Academy of Pediatrics, which recommends children under 2-years-old not be exposed to television. I don’t own any children’s videos and our TV comes on only after our daughter has gone to bed. I expect there have been challenges in not having a TV to baby-sit her for short periods of time, but never having known any other way, I’m blissfully ignorant. If anything, my daughter has honed her ability to entertain herself when mom or dad has to get some work done.

(Incidentally, I turned down an offer yesterday for a review copy of, for all practical purposes, a very nice toy designed for the 9 to 36 month age range because it is to be used in conjunction with a DVD player and TV.)


One Response to “Research: Does Television Cause Autism?”

  1. AG says:

    See for a response to the press about the “study” from an actual Cornell autism researcher.

    November 10th, 2006 at 1:01 pm

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