How Urban Noise Affects Children

Why loud sounds are harmful to the development of children and how to deal with it.

The incessant noise surrounds residents of cities constantly. For the most part, we have learned to cope with it or not notice at all. However, recent studies have shown that children perceive the sounds of loud unexpected noises quite differently, which leads their brain into confusion and hinder the absorption of new information.

The National Hearing Conservation Association measured the volume level of a typical day of a child from 6 to 14 years — it equals 90 dB, which is almost akin to the noise of traffic. On the playground this level is even higher — about 115 dB, which is equal to the volume of the underground or a rock concert. And we should keep in mind that the permissible level of noise for a person is 55 decibels by day and 40 by night. A loud city life doesn’t only harm a child’s hearing, but also significantly affects the child’s behavior. Children, that are exposed to various noises frequently, suffer from the high blood pressure, absent-mindedness; they lose will power, motivation to learn, they even read worse. That is what the study conducted by Lorraine Maxwell and Gary Evans of the University of Corneille showed.

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This is a paradoxical situation of our incredibly loud life, because “children learn language through listening,” said Dr. Rochelle Newman of the University of Maryland at a meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. “Children have an increased need for the understanding of speech around but at the same time, they are less prepared to understand it,” says Newman. It has nothing to do with their ability to hear. In healthy children the auditory system is already well developed by 2-3 months.

Imagine how difficult it is to have a conversation in a noisy restaurant. Researchers from the University of Maryland reproduced this atmosphere in a series of experiments with children, playing records with reading or talking people.

They tried to determine how easily children recognize familiar words (e.g. “Playground”) or how quickly learn new ones. Very young children could recognize the voice of one person in the general hubbub, but only on relatively mild levels of noise. Even the everyday noise is enough to distract a child so that he cannot hear what was said. This problem arises not only in toddlers and preschoolers. “The ability to understand and process speech on the background noise does not develop until adolescence,” — said Dr. Laurie Leibold from National Research Boys Town Hospital in Omaha.

What is more, the ability to “disconnect” from the noise around does not develop in small children as well. A short sudden sound of someone’s cough, a horn of a car can drown out a part of the sentence. An adult brain, filled with life experience, automatically inserts the logical option so quickly that people do not even notice. “Children do not. Their brain is not able to fill in the gaps,” says Dr. Newman.

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Ambient noises particularly affect the educational process at school. When a child is distracted by a classmate’s joke, he ceases to hear the teacher, his attention is scattered, he absorbs the information much worse. Therefore, Leibold reports, even the layout of the class, the floor coverings and the ceiling height could affect the overall acoustics in the classroom.

But any learning begins at home. Nana Ratner Burstein, the expert on child language at the University of Maryland, said at the meeting that she gets questions from parents frequently. For example, they ask whether they need to stimulate children with interactive toys and training gears. “We used to think that background noise has a positive effect on children, but what stimulates an adult, does not necessarily stimulate a child,” she says. According to the Journal of Children and Media, television interferes with the mental development of the baby. The scientists were observing children for two years. The parents spent about five hours a day playing with their children, and a TV set worked constantly in the background showing programs for grown-up people. As a result this led to the retardation of the speech development.

Pieces of Advice from Scientists to Facilitate Children’s Learning:

  • Do not leave TV, radio and other electronic gadgets working at the same time as the child learns something. Any distracting noise captures the child’s attention immediately, and it dissipates instantly.
  • Speak clearly and make an eye contact. Make sure the child sees your face, especially in a noisy place. The child can capture the movement of the mouth, and it will help him to restore the lost fragments of the speech.
  • Spend more time talking, reading out loud. Only live speech can help the child in development.
  • If your children have behavior problems at school, make sure that the acoustics is good in the classroom. After all, the child who hears his classmates better than the teacher can hardly focus on the learning process.