Tuned In

This Is Your Baby's Brain on TV

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I generally steer clear of controversies about TV and its health effects–purported or otherwise–on kids. To paraphrase Bones McCoy, I’m a critic, not a doctor, and I can vouchsafe the healthiness or danger of the shows I review no more than a restaurant reviewer can tell you what foie gras will do to your arteries. I can only say what’s good or bad or interesting and why. And that foie gras is yummy.

All that said, a really interesting (for which read: scary) piece by Gregg Easterbrook in Slate today on a Cornell study’s hypothesis: that TV watching may be linked to autism developing in children under three. (I’ll emphasize may be and hypothesis, as does the article itself, which I’ll just suggest you read before I get myself into any scientific trouble.) "They found that as cable television became common in California and
Pennsylvania beginning around 1980, childhood autism rose more in the
counties that had cable than in the counties that did not," Easterbrook writes. "They further
found that in all the Western states, the more time toddlers spent in
front of the television, the more likely they were to exhibit symptoms
of autism disorders. The Cornell study represents a potential
bombshell in the autism debate. ‘We are not saying we have found the
cause of autism, we’re saying we have found a critical piece of
evidence,’ Cornell researcher Michael Waldman told me."

The merits of the argument aside, what interests me is that–unlike many of the conjectures linking kids’ media to, say, violence–the concern here is not about content but its format and the physical responses it causes. The researchers say that TV, and its rapid-fire images, may effect childrens’ mental development, rather than arguing–as has been argued before, more or much less scientifically–that TV’s content will make kids into bad people.

I have a child under three myself, so what does this mean for me? I don’t plan to change how I let him watch TV: daily, though with limited choices and far less than his little lungs cry out for. (I will keep one wary eye on this story, as I’d suggest any parent would.) Again, I’m not a doctor; I just perform surgery on TV shows.

But as for the foie gras? Not for my kid. I can barely afford preschool.