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TV and autism: Linked? Or "just friends"?

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Remember Dustin Hoffman, that portable TV, and “three minutes to Wapner”? Well, about that…

Brothers and sisters in media-marination, the time may have come for us to do something terrifyingly grown-up: Consider the children. Gregg Easterbrook has an unsettling bit of news in this week’s Slate: Apparently, a new study suggests childhood autism may be related to… television.

Like you, I grew up with a parent (or two) telling me that television would rot my brain. I took this to mean that a viewing of Knight Rider might be considered (by a benighted society) slightly less edifying than reading The Pickwick Papers. I watched Knight Rider anyway, and that’s why we have this time together, you and I.

But according to the latest study (how I love that phrase), brain-rot isn’t figurative at all, if you’re under 3 and already suckling at the glass teat. It finds a correlation between the rise of home video and cable and the rise in autism. Nickelodeon launched in ’79; autism rates began their record climb in ’80. What’s more, there’s data suggesting that children who spent more time indoors in cable households were more likely to develop autism. Coincidence… or chilling coincidence?

Autism is poorly understood. It’s been blamed on everything from mercury to vaccines, though studies have failed to establish a connection. All we know is, the Amish are the least affected group. The Amish don’t do vaccines. Or Teletubbies. Or Steak-Umms. Maybe Steak-Umms are to blame? Cripes, I hope not. I ate a LOT of Steak-Umms. (Don’t judge me. It was the ’80s!)

Easterbrook (and some of the researchers he interviews) notes the measured abnormalities in the vision-processing of an autistic child’s brain, and postulates that high doses of flashy, 2-D images might be bad for a young, developing mind, which is trying to learn to process 3-D images. (That stampeding sound you hear is a thousand skittish parents rushing their toddlers into the IMAX 3-D dome to “take the cure.”)

So what does that mean for us, the media-steeped? It means what anyone who’s ever watched television already knows: TV affects the brain in profound ways. An adult mind imbibing TV can be either totally neutralized or lit up like a Christmas tree, depending on the program. Imagine the impact on a child’s brain, still grappling with language and the concept of Cheerios-are-delicious.

Sure, it’s just another study — and there’s a study-to-fit for every so-called theory, from Creationism to Dane Cook. But this will likely open up a new area of inquiry and (hopefully) spawn additional research: If 2-D images are the problem, does that mean sequestering kids in this increasingly screen-happy world? It may be that the computer/entertainment center is the new liquor cabinet, something to be kept out of reach and off limits until the time is right. (This is baaaaaad news for housebound new parents — but excellent news for satellite radio.) Until we know more, I know this: I’m keeping my as-yet-theoretical Baby Einsteins away from the one-eyed monster. I will, however, allow them to watch Witness, trusting its essential Amishness to counteract any ill-effects. And if I catch my 4-year-old daughter obsessively raising a barn in her bedroom, well, that’s a risk I’ll have to take. At least, until the next study comes out.