NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH
NATIONAL BUREAU OF ECONOMIC RESEARCH

Positive and Negative Mental Health Consequences of Early Childhood Television Watching

Michael Waldman, Sean Nicholson, Nodir Adilov

NBER Working Paper No. 17786
Issued in January 2012
NBER Program(s):   HC   HE

An extensive literature in medicine investigates the health consequences of early childhood television watching. However, this literature does not address the issue of reverse causation, i.e., does early childhood television watching cause specific health outcomes or do children more likely to have these health outcomes watch more television? This paper uses a natural experiment to investigate the health consequences of early childhood television watching and so is not subject to questions concerning reverse causation. Specifically, we use repeated cross-sectional data from 1972 through 1992 on county-level mental retardation rates, county-level autism rates, and county-level children’s cable-television subscription rates to investigate how early childhood television watching affects the prevalence of mental retardation and autism. We 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. Our results thus suggest that early childhood television watching has important positive and negative health consequences.

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Document Object Identifier (DOI): 10.3386/w17786

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