Too much TV could be a trigger for autism according to a group of Cornell University business professors.
Late last year a study found evidence that gives support to the idea that childhood autism could be triggered by toddlers watching too much television. So we have another factor to add to the already confusing question of what is causing the ever increasing number of autism cases.
For a long time autism was thought to be an entirely genetic condition and research efforts were mainly focused in this area. Over the years however, a growing body of research has built up that suggests the involvement of various environmental triggers in causing the illness. Now there is a growing consensus that autistic spectrum disorders are the result of an interaction between environmental factors and genetic susceptibilities. So could too much TV viewing be added to the list of potential environmental triggers which includes heavy metal poisoning, vaccinations, and chemicals such as organophosphate pesticides?
Much of the interest in environmental triggers has come about as the rise in the number of cases of autism has paralleled the introduction and increasing use of many of the suspected triggers. Nobody could argue that there has been a huge increase in the amount of TV kids regularly watch in the last few decades, the same period over which autism rates have skyrocketed.
This possible connection hasn't gone unnoticed by Michael Waldman, PhD, a management professor at Cornell University in the United States. He noticed that the increase in autism cases came at the same time as increased opportunities for very young children to watch TV. As a result, he began to wonder, if the growth in children's TV programming, DVDs, VCRs, and video/computer games is behind the growth in autism cases.
As Professor Waldman's area is business and autism is not something he would usually be looking into, he mentioned his observations to colleagues in the medical world. Unfortunately, he found that none of them were interested in researching the issue. An indication that although there is now a lot more interest in potential environmental triggers in autism, there is still reluctance to look at all possible leads. Professor Waldman was not put off and assembled a research team and did the study himself, using methods more commonly used in economic studies than in medical studies.
As autism is usually diagnosed at the young age of 3, it is understandably hard to get figures for the amount of TV children of this age and younger are watching. It is not a demographic that is considered of high importance in the entertainment industry. Professor Waldman and his team however, were able to get the information they needed from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. The Bureau was able to provide the researchers with statistics relating to when families watch TV, and on how much TV they watch.
A simple but important statistic stood out - toddlers watch more television when it's raining outside than when it isn't raining. Professor Waldman and his research team then looked at autism rates in each county in the states of California, Oregon, and Washington. These 3 states have huge variations in annual rainfall so should show a definite pattern of autism cases if there was a link to rainfall. Sure enough, the researchers found that autism rates tended to be higher in the rainiest counties.
Professor Waldman is quoted as saying "We ran the tests a number of different ways, and basically every way we run it, we get the same thing. If it rains more, autism goes up. If it rains less, autism goes down," He goes on to comment, "That is a fine theory by itself, but still one can't be sure it is TV and not some other indoor toxin that is to blame."
Indeed, at this stage of the research Professor Waldman could be making a case for household chemical products such as detergents, deodorants and hair products being triggers for autism, as much as he was for TV viewing. Chemical products are also suspected of being involved by some, but in this case Professor Waldman was focused solely on the effect TV viewing has. As such, he and his team needed a way of looking at the available statistics to pinpoint TV viewing alone in association with autism.
They way the research team did this was to look at the percentage of households that subscribed to cable television in both California and Pennsylvania. They did this based on the assumptions that households that receive cable TV services are likely to watch more television overall, and that the greater number of channels provides a lot more programming aimed at very young children at virtually any time of day.
This investigation paid off as their review of the statistics told the researchers that areas with the most cable TV subscribers also had the highest number of children diagnosed with autism.
So the research team had now found a way to increase the chances that the higher incidence of autism in rainy areas was linked to television viewing rather than some other factor in the home. Professor Waldman said of the results, "Our view is there is no obvious thing correlated with both rain and cable TV access except television viewing.".
Professor Waldman accepts that this study does not represent concrete proof that watching too much TV causes autism, but he does believe that the results indicate that a link between the two does exist.
Perhaps this research will provide enough incentive for medical researchers to take a serious look at this issue. The theory that too much TV viewing by very young children might be involved in developmental disorders has been around a long time but it doesn't seem to have received much serious attention from the research community.
Until more research does look into this matter and come to firm conclusions either way, the American Academy of Pediatrician's, and many other similar organizations worldwide, recommend no TV for children before age 2, and limiting viewing time to an hour or two a day for older children. Of course this is easier said than done in most cases and the fact that other studies have shown that TV viewing in older children might actually help their development and education only confuses the issue further. Limiting TV in younger children is certainly easier and arguably more important.
What's so bad about TV?
This is a great study that certainly highlights the possibility that the much loved TV is something else in a child's environment that could contribute to the development of autism. Of course what it does not tell us is what it is about watching TV that could be having a negative effect on children's health.
Most people would probably conclude that any effect TV has on triggering or worsening autism is due to the fact watching excessive amounts undoubtedly has an impact on how much time a child is spending interacting socially. Social interaction is known to be of up most importance for children to develop normally and therapies that encourage autistic children to interact more with others are often very effective. This is a logical viewpoint and no doubt is a big part of the equation, but there is another possibility as well.
Could the television set itself be to blame? As the number of electronics devices we have in our houses and about our person continue to increase, the issue of how the electromagnetic fields they generate affect a persons health is becoming more prominent. Perhaps the electromagnetic radiation children are exposed to as they sit in front of the TV might be behind a possible link between tv viewing and autism. After all, children often sit right in front of the TV where they would be exposed to much higher intensity fields than if they sat further away.
This is not some pie in the sky idea. In 2004 Robert C. Kane, Ph.D., published an article entitled 'A Possible Association Between Fetal/neonatal Exposure to Radiofrequency Electromagnetic Radiation and the Increased Incidence of Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD)'. In this article Dr. Kane points out the steep rise in autism cases over the period that electronics products have become a growing part of everyday life. He states that "recently disclosed data suggest a possible correlation between autism incidence and a previously unconsidered environmental toxin. It is generally accepted in the scientific community that radiofrequency radiation is a biologically active substance. It is also readily acknowledged that human exposures to radiofrequency radiation have become pervasive during the past twenty years, whereas such exposures were uncommon prior to that time. It is suggested that fetal or neo-natal exposures to radiofrequency radiation may be associated with an increased incidence of autism."
So not only do we need more research to determine conclusively whether TV viewing is an important factor in triggering autism, we also need more research to determine exactly what it is about TV viewing that is having the effect. In light of a possible role for electromagnetic fields (EMF's) it may be worth making sure children sit at a sensible distance from the TV and perhaps investing in a newer flat panel screen, as these use less power and emit less radiation than traditional cathode ray tube models.