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ARTICLES Table of Contents   
Year : 2003  |  Volume : 5  |  Issue : 19  |  Page : 19-30
Qualitative responses of children to environmental noise

1 Environment and Health Group, Department of Psychiatry, St Bartholomew's and The Royal London School of Medicine and Dentistry, Queen Mary, University of London, UK; Health Risk Management Practice, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Sydney, Australia
2 Environment and Health Group, Department of Psychiatry, St Bartholomew's and The Royal London School of Medicine and Dentistry, Queen Mary, University of London, UK

Click here for correspondence address and email

Results from recent quantitative research consistently demonstrate that children are a high risk group, vulnerable to the adverse effects of noise exposure, especially effects on cognitive performance, motivation and annoyance. The aims of the two qualitative studies reported in this paper are to explore children's a) perception of noise exposure; b) perceived risk of and attitudes towards noise pollution; c) coping strategies; and d) the annoyance response. The Millennium Conference Study involved focus group interviews with an international sample (n=36) unselected by exposure. The West London Schools Study involved individual interviews, conducted with a purposively selected sample (n=18) exposed to aircraft noise. The children in the focus groups reported being most affected by neighbours' noise and road traffic noise, whereas children exposed to aircraft noise were most affected by aircraft noise. As expected, the impact of noise pollution on everyday activities (e.g. schoolwork, homework and playing) was larger for the children exposed to high levels of aircraft noise compared with the low noise exposed children and focus group samples. The range of coping strategies that children employed to combat noise exposure in their lives was dependent upon the amount of control they had over the noise source. The emotional response of children describing the annoyance reaction to noise was consistent with adult reactions and it would seem that child noise annoyance is the same construct. Future research should employ qualitative methods to supplement quantitative investigations.

Keywords: child health, qualitative methods, annoyance, environmental noise

How to cite this article:
Haines M M, Brentnall S L, Stansfeld S A, Klineberg E. Qualitative responses of children to environmental noise. Noise Health 2003;5:19-30

How to cite this URL:
Haines M M, Brentnall S L, Stansfeld S A, Klineberg E. Qualitative responses of children to environmental noise. Noise Health [serial online] 2003 [cited 2019 Nov 20];5:19-30. Available from: http://www.noiseandhealth.org/text.asp?2003/5/19/19/31701

  Introduction Top

Noise pollution is increasingly being recognised as an environmental hazard in modern urban environments. Results from recent quantitative research consistently demonstrate that children are a high risk group, vulnerable to the adverse effects of noise exposure especially effects on cognitive performance (Evans and Lepore, 1993; Evans et al., 1995, 1998; Haines et al., 2001a, 2001b, 2001c, 2002; Stansfeld et al., 2000), motivation (Cohen et al., 1980; Evans et al., 1995; Evans, 1998) and annoyance (Bronzaft and McCarthy, 1975; Evans et al., 1995; Haines et al., 2001a, 2001b, 2001c). The results from these quantitative studies can not provide complete answers as to how children perceive noise exposure, the meaning of noise exposure and the annoyance reaction. As in other fields of environmental health research (Pope and Mays, 1995), there is a need to complement the quantitative results with qualitative research that allows for more open and exploratory examination of children's response to noise exposure by engaging with the children's perspectives of their environments. The aims of the two qualitative studies reported in this paper are to explore children's a) perception of noise exposure; b) perceived risk of noise pollution; c) coping strategies; and d) the annoyance response.

The theory of environmental stress has been used to account for non-auditory health effects of noise exposure (Cohen et al., 1986). The most basic assumption of this theory is that noise exposure is an environmental stressor. This means that people living in noisy environments perceive noise as a threat and also find it stressful. 'Noise as an environmental stressor' is an important conceptual issue, especially for children, because they have very little perception and control over threatening situations. This assumption of 'perceived threat and stress' requires testing through qualitative investigation into the way children appraise the threat of noise in their school and home environments. It is reasonable to predict that there will be variation in the perception of noise exposure dependent on actual exposure levels. The studies in this paper compare the perception of noise between children who are exposed to average levels of ambient noise in their home and school environments with a sample of children exposed to high levels of aircraft noise exposure. The school environment was defined as playing outside or working in the classroom.

It is important to understand the strategies children employ to cope with noise exposure to reduce its impact on their lives. It is possible that the strategies themselves could lead to adverse consequences either directly or indirectly. (Cohen et al., 1986). For example, there is some evidence that children chronically exposed to high levels of noise have poor motivation (Cohen et al., 1980; Evans et al., 1995). This response could been interpreted as learned helplessness, which may be a by-product of the adaptive process of coping with a chronic stressor (Cohen et al., 1986; Evans, 1998).

The converse approach to studying reactive coping strategies to reduce the stressful impact of noise is to examine proactive strategies that children use to seek tranquillity. Hartig and colleagues (1996) have argued that the study of conditions in physical and social environments that promote recovery from stress and provide psychological restoration is a necessary complementary approach to environmental stress studies. The restorative environments children seek to find some peace and quiet will be explored in these studies.

Chronic exposure to aircraft noise has consistently been associated with annoyance in community samples of adults and children in quantitative research (Fields, 1992; Stansfeld et al., 2000). Unanswered questions remain about the precise definition of this 'annoyance response'. One way forward to clarify this annoyance response and address the question of 'what is it about environmental noise that children find annoying?' is by qualitative interviews with children.

The aim of this paper is to report two qualitative studies, using two techniques with two child samples. The first is an international sample of children not selected by noise exposure in which the aim was to explore their response to environmental noise using focus groups. The second was a sample of school children exposed to a specific noise source, namely aircraft noise around Heathrow Airport, and a group of children in schools not exposed to aircraft noise around Heathrow Airport. These individual interviews conducted with both the noise exposed and non-noise exposed samples provide comparative information about the reactions of children to a specific noise source, namely aircraft noise at school.

  Methods Top

Qualitative data was collected in two studies employing two different methods. The Millennium Conference Study, conducted interviews in a focus group format and aimed to collect data by exploring general issues concerning children's experience of noise and their risk perception of noise. In the West London Schools Study (Haines et al., 2001c) interviews were conducted individually with a sub-sample of children and aimed to collect feedback on responses to exposure from a specific noise source. Data collected was structured using four key themes:

1. How does noise affect you?

a) Risk of noise as a hazard (for the Millennium Conference Study)

b) Attitude to aircraft noise (for the West London School Study)

3. Coping strategies to combat noise pollution

4. Annoyance reaction

These themes informed questions and probes which were preset before questioning began, in order to establish easy evaluation and interpretation of the data collected. These questions and probes are outlined on [Table - 1].

Millennium Conference Study: Focus groups

The sample of children who took part in the focus group were 36 self-selected children aged 10-13, from 12 countries. The children were split into three groups prior to the session and children from the same countries were grouped together for added reassurance. There were approximately 12 children in each group. These children were delegates at the Millennium International Children's Conference held in Eastbourne, England in 2000. The criteria for being a delegate at the conference was to be between the ages of 10 and 12 on 1st April 2000. The delegates had to demonstrate interest in environmental issues and be part of a school or community environmental group. Most children could speak English, however, this was not an essential requirement as interpretation facilities were available.

The focus group involved a brief introduction to the aims and style of the session. A set of open semi-structured questions were posed to each group with some response and comprehension dependent variation (see [Table - 1] for questions posed). The session commenced with an 'icebreaker' and general questions in order to engage thought and progressed with more detailed questions to explore themes. The focus groups took place at the conference in an enclosed room. The interviews were undertaken by a single interviewer (SB) and were simultaneously recorded on a Sony TCS-50V Cassette Recorder and noted using a marker pen and flip chart.

West London Schools Study: Individual interviews

The second series of interviews were conducted at the individual level with a sub-sample selected from the West London Schools Study (Haines et al., 2001c). The 18 children interviewed were from 10 schools near Heathrow Airport in West London. Nine children were from schools exposed to high levels of aircraft noise (>63 dBA Leq 16hr) and 9 children were from schools exposed to lower levels of aircraft noise(<57 dBA Leq 16hr). Schools were chosen within the published 1997 Civil Aviation Authority dBA Leq, 16hr (92 days) contour maps. The CAA contour maps indicate the average continuous equivalent sound level of aircraft noise within a particular area for 16 hour daily periods (Leq 16hr). Children were randomly selected by the interviewer or the class teacher to take part in the interviews by choosing children without taking into account other factors such as test performance or ethnicity.

A semi-structured format was again adopted to cope with the potential variety in response. The questions were designed to start from a broad base and become more specifically focused on aircraft noise pollution (see [Table - 1] for questions posed and acceptable probes). The interviews were conducted at the school the child attended in varying quiet and suitable locations such as classrooms, reading areas, cloakrooms and foyers. The children were interviewed during class time for approximately 5 minutes. The interviews were conducted by three researchers (SB, RR, MH). Inter-interviewer consistency was enabled by all interviewers using the same preset semi-structured interview with pre-set probes. Responses were recorded using a Sony TCS-50V cassette recorder and a dictaphone.

Data analysis:

Data analysis was conducted in accordance with standard qualitative methods to assess between group differences and themes within subjects (Pope et al., 2000), while using techniques to protect against bias and enhance the reliability of the results (Mays and Pope, 1995). The qualitative interviews were transcribed verbatim for each of the group and individual interviews. The transcripts of the three interviewers were assessed before analysis and were deemed reasonably consistent. The focus group data was gathered in a structured manner with questions devised from topic areas following a logical progression. A similarly structured approach to analysis was adopted. The analysis involved a group by question grid method, which systematically summarised what each group and individual said in response to each question (Morgan, 1997). Group and individual responses were assessed using a coded topic method, categorising responses into broad and loose themes or reasons (Silverman, 2000). The group results are presented objectively ordered by theme. To complement the group analysis, the interrelationships between themes from the West London interviews were explored through a vertical structural analysis for each participant. This analysis functioned to identify if certain themes or responses tended to occur in conjunction with each other or together. This aims to identify trends in response pattern at the individual level, as opposed to group level comparison. The vertical analysis was conducted by applying a grid summary from the pre­established themes, and categorising each participant's answers to identify trends at the individual response level. All analysis of transcripts was conducted using codes, that is, without knowledge of noise exposure group. The interviews were broken down into topic categories to assess whether patterns emerged between attitudes, reported effects and responses to noise.

  Results Top

A summary of results of the focus group and in depth interview analysis are outlined below in two sections: 1) Millennium Conference Study: Focus Group Results and 2) West London School Study: Individual Interviews. (Data and grid analysis are available on request from the authors). The socio-demographics of the sample are presented, followed by a summary of results for each key theme of the focus groups and individual interviews. Finally the results from the vertical structural analysis of the individual interviews are presented. For some issues, similar ideas have been counted and numbers have been used to give a general estimation of a group's feeling towards a certain topic. Quotes have also been used as supporting data.

Millennium Conference Study: Focus Group Results

Socio-demographic characteristics of the sample

The 36 children who took part in the focus groups came from 12 countries: England (N=13); Germany (N=4); Bahrain (N=4); Jamaica (N=4); Malaysia (N=3); Norway (N=2); Hungary (N=1); Yugoslavia (N=1); Palestine (N=1); Oman (N=1); Malawi (N=1); Swaziland (N=1). The mean age of this sample was 11 years and 7 months (range from 10 years to 13 years 7 months). Two thirds of the sample were girls (64%, n=23). 78% of the sample lived in a city or town and 22% lived in a village or countryside (A town was defined as an urban area bigger and less rural than a village with some level of local government. A city was defined as a large town.).

How does noise affect you?

The children listed many noises they heard in their environment, the most frequent being noises made by people (N=16), for example, screaming and crying. The second and third most reported noises were from animals (N=13) and road traffic (N=7) respectively. The children expressed many emotions associated with the listed noises. Negative emotions were expressed more frequently than positive ones. "Annoyed" was the most reported emotion followed by "happy" and "sad". It was apparent that different sources of noise were linked to different emotions. Negative emotions (18 reported in total) were associated mainly with traffic noise, industrial noise, sirens, alarms and nails on a blackboard. Positive emotions (13 reported in total) were linked to natural sounds such as the wind and household noises such as washing up, fans and the television.

Noise as a hazard

When focus groups were asked the relative importance of noise pollution compared with sources of pollution such as air and water, all groups rated noise pollution as less important than water and air pollution. Water was rated as the most damaging source of pollution, followed by air and lastly noise.

'You can sort of put up with noise pollution but you can't put up with water pollution.'

However, when asked about the effects of these three pollutants on their day to day lives children rated noise pollution as having an effect on quality of life in certain situations.

'It depends where you are. Long term it's water pollution and air pollution but walking down the street it's noise pollution that affects you more.'

Coping strategies

Many children felt that the amount of control they had over noise pollution depended on the source of the noise. The majority (N=19) expressed that they felt in control of noises generated inside their homes. They felt they could tell neighbours to be quiet or close the door as a solution. However, the children did not feel they had control over noise that was generated outside their homes such as over busy roads and planes flying overhead. The children expressed a range of coping strategies to deal with noise. The most popular as a coping strategy was to block out the noise source by wearing headphones or playing music. The second most reported strategy was 'thinking about something else' and thirdly, taking action by telling the person to 'turn it down' or 'off'. Their bedroom was the most popular place for the children to retire to as a quiet space, followed by outside areas such as gardens. Two thirds (N=21) of the sample wanted to change their environment and make it quieter, whilst a third (N=11) thought it was acceptable at the present level. Most children wanted better regulations to be introduced as better control over noise pollution (N=18 versus 8).

West London School Study: Individual Interviews

Socio-demographic characteristics of the sample

Nine children who attended primary schools exposed to high levels of aircraft noise (>63 dBA 16hr Leq) were compared with nine children from matched control schools exposed to lower levels of aircraft noise (<57 dBA 16hr Leq). The mean age of the sample was 8 years old and all children were in Year 4. 56% of the children were girls and 44% boys. (For complete methodological details including matching, home and school noise exposure levels and SES on the West London sample see Haines et al., 2001c)

Attitude to the environment and noise

All low noise exposure children were positive about their school environment (N=9), compared with a mostly positive, yet mixed response from the high noise population. Two high noise children were neutral / unsure and two were negative about their feelings about their school environment. The term 'environment' needed to be explained to a number of children in this sample.

Half of the high aircraft noise exposed children (N=5) and a third of the low aircraft noise exposed children (N=4) expressed there were aspects of their school environment that made them feel stressed. Four of these claims related to environmental stressors, two concerning aircraft (high noise), one cars (high noise) and one trees (low noise).

Surprisingly, more children in low noise schools reported being disturbed by noise than children attending high noise exposed schools. For example, four low noise children reported being distracted by noisy people whereas none of the high noise children cited people as a source of disturbance.

Attitude and effects of aircraft noise

A negative attitude was expressed towards aircraft noise by more low noise exposure children (N=7) than high noise exposure children (N=4). Two of the children attending high noise exposed schools were neutral in attitude and the others were all quite accepting, and claimed to not mind aircraft noise.

When asked specifically about effects of aircraft noise on their activities, eight high noise children and five low noise children reported some interruption (either at school or at home). A majority of the high noise group (N=5) expressed they were disturbed while thinking or doing schoolwork. Three of these children mentioned English and literacy based work as the activity most affected. One child mentioned being disturbed whilst in the playground.

'My literacy that we are all doing right now.' (high noise)
(aircraft noise) disturbs and isn't that pleasant... When I'm doing my work, like English or something, it goes past and then it disturbs me." (high noise)

When I am working here in the classroom, most of the time there's loads of airplanes so it disturbs us.' (high noise)

"When we're doing PE when we're outside... we always have to wait until it goes over so the teacher can tell us what we're doing." (high noise)

Three of the low noise group claimed that thinking / schoolwork was affected by aircraft noise and four low noise children said they were not affected or did not notice. Some low noise children reported being slightly affected by aircraft noise in the playground and whilst doing homework.

'I don't think anything really distracts me.' (low noise)

'at my house ...you can hear (aircraft noise) because it's next to Heathrow airport, but here (at school) you can't really hear it.... Sometimes when I am trying to do my homework and the noise just makes my brain go dead. I can't think.' (low noise)

Coping strategies, control/prevention

Covering the ears was the most popular strategy for combating plane noise for both the high (N=5) and low (N=5) noise populations. Doing nothing and ignoring it were the second and third most popular coping strategies from both noise groups. Other strategies were concentrating on other things, turning up music / TV, and waiting for it to go over.

'I just cover my ears but it doesn't really help.' (high noise)

'Well I can't really block it out so I just sort of cope with it, carry on, wait for it to go away' (low noise)

'Close my window shut my brain and sometimes I turn my music up louder.' (low noise)

Annoyance reaction

In general, loud noise from planes was the factor the children objected to most about the aircraft in both high and low noise populations. Other descriptions included a 'funny noise', 'buzzing' and the issues of safety.

A negative emotional reaction to aircraft noise was voiced by all low noise (N=9) and most high noise (N=7) children. Probing led to a clearer definition of this affective response. The children defined annoyance as: disturbing (High: N= 1, Low: N= 1), being bothered (High: N= 2, Low: N= 2) or annoyed (High: N= 4, Low: N= 4). Other descriptions included feeling 'really stressed out', and upset. One child from the low noise group expressed fear.

Interrelationship of themes: vertical structural analysis

The aim of this analysis was to examine the structure of the themes within the two sub­groups of children: children in schools exposed to high levels of aircraft noise compared with child in schools exposed to low levels of aircraft noise. The interviews were broken down into theme topic categories to assess whether patterns emerged between attitudes, reported effects and responses to noise.

Children in schools exposed to high levels of aircraft noise

The majority of children who reported that thinking / schoolwork was affected by aircraft noise (N = 6) expressed some form annoyance reaction (N= 5). Similarly, an annoyance reaction was evident in all children who reported proactive coping responses to the noise (N= 5).

A consistent pattern emerged across themes in all of the high noise children who expressed a negative attitude to noise. These children all claimed that schoolwork/ thinking was affected by the noise, felt some form of annoyance reaction, and tended to cover their ears in response to aircraft noise. Potential interrelationships between these element are illustrated by [Figure - 1] below.

Despite commonly occurring together in child responses, which implies associations between them, these psychological and behavioural responses are not necessarily causally related.

Children in schools exposed to lower levels of aircraft noise

There were mixed response patterns in the low noise exposure children, with some association between specific themes, yet not across all themes, as noted in the high noise group. For example, of those seven children who reported negative attitudes to aircraft noise, three children had the response pattern identified in the high noise group (claiming that the noise affected schoolwork / thinking, elicited an annoyance reaction and that they responded to the noise by covering their ears).

Echoing the pattern within the high noise sample, all low noise exposed children who reported that thinking / schoolwork was affected by aircraft noise (N=4) expressed an annoyance reaction. Four out of the five subjects who reported proactive coping mechanisms to aircraft noise such as covering his/her ears also expressed some kind of annoyance reaction.

There did not appear to be a clear pattern linking attitudes with the effects of aircraft noise, as the majority of low noise children demonstrated a negative attitude (N=7), however, four of those children reported that they did not notice / were not affected by the noise.

  Discussion Top

The aim of these qualitative studies was to further understanding about children's experience with noise, their perceptions of noise as a stressor, the coping strategies they use to combat the adverse effects of exposure and the annoyance response. A further aim was to provide some evidence to complement previous quantitative investigations and to shed some light on environmental stress theories used to account for child noise effects.

Perceptions of and attitudes to noise exposure

The children in the Millennium Conference Study focus groups reported neighbours and road traffic as the most frequent sources of noise perceived at home. Perceived noise exposure is known to correlate reliably with actual exposure in child samples (Haines et al., 2001a). This response pattern for perceived noise at home mirrors community noise surveys of adults with neighbours' noise and road traffic noise also being the most frequently reported (Grimwood, 1993). This indicates consistent and reliable responses from this child sample. In the focus group the children reported noises from people (including neighbours) affecting them most in their everyday lives. They felt these noises were both positive and negative and that they could have some control over moderating these human sources of noise. Road traffic also affected the children in their everyday lives. This was uniformly perceived as negative and uncontrollable.

The results from the West London Schools Study individual interviews indicate that the extent to which noise exposure affected child activities was linked to actual exposure level. One surprising result was that attitude to aircraft noise did not differ greatly between high and low noise exposure groups. Children in both groups expressed negative attitudes about noise, however, this did not correlate with the reported effects of noise on their activities. Children in high noise schools reported that aircraft noise had a larger impact on their activities than the children in the low noise schools (this issue was further explored in the structural analysis and is discussed below). Some children in low noise schools report mild aircraft interference when in the playground or at home when doing homework. One reason to explain this surprising result is that children may report high annoyance level at lower exposure levels than adults, therefore the impact of lower levels of aircraft noise on the comparison sample might still cause mild annoyance. Dose-response curves for children's noise annoyance levels are as yet unknown, and will hopefully be reported by the RANCH study (www.ranchproject.org).

Noise as a Hazard

Water pollution was perceived as a hazard having immediate adverse impacts on health and mortality, whereas noise pollution, even though it affected them on a daily basis, was not perceived as having a detrimental effect on their health. The perceived risk of noise pollution as a hazard was minimal. Even though noise was not considered a threat, when asked, the children expressed that they would like to reduce the amount of noise in their environment. The children's feeling that noise exposure affects their quality of life and well-being mirrors the reported noise effects in adults (Berglund and Lindvall, 1995).

Noise Annoyance

The most striking result from the focus group was that children report the highest annoyance for neighbours' noise at home. Neighbour noise has been neglected in previous research examining the non-auditory health effects of noise exposure on children. Future research could focus on the effects of neighbours' noise on children. For example, does it affect homework, sleep, well-being and stress levels?

Noise annoyance levels in the focus groups were generally very low across all noise sources. Low levels of noise annoyance may indicate that these children are not exposed to any extremely high levels of noise pollution at home. This may be due to the potential selection bias of the international sample of children attending the UNEP Millennium conference being from socially advantaged families.

In contrast, the sample of children exposed to aircraft noise consistently expressed high annoyance. This supports previous studies examining child noise annoyance where it has been found that when children are exposed to a specific noise source (e.g. aircraft) they only report noise annoyance in relation to that noise source (Haines et al., 2000c). Emotional responses mentioned by children exposed to high levels of aircraft noise were consistent with the definition that annoyance involves mild irritation, fear and anger (Cohen and Weinstein, 1981).

Coping strategies to combat noise exposure and restorative environments

The results from both studies also suggest that annoyance might involve a feeling of being unable to relax. This inability to relax may be due to persistent noise exposure polluting environments such as homes, parks and playgrounds, where children expect to be able to play and rest. When asked, children selected their bedrooms and green areas in their neighbourhoods as quiet places to find some respite from noise pollution. It might be advisable to promote and provide quiet green areas for children exposed to chronic noise exposure as a beneficial coping strategy to provide psychological restoration (Hartig et al., 1991).

In general, the children felt that they had control over the noise inside their homes but little control over external noise. Most of the coping strategies suggested focused on alleviating neighbours' noise permeating their homes. Some children suggested closing doors, and moving away to quieter places and others opted for a direct action strategy of approaching the people creating the noise nuisance. No strategies for coping with transport noise were suggested, keeping with the perception that they are unable to control this source. General strategies for blocking the effects of noise pollution were to use devices such as headphones/walkman and putting on music to drown out the noise. It must be noted that this blocking strategy may be harmful to the children's auditory system and requires future investigation.

Inter-relationship between noise exposure, attitudes and reactions

The structural analysis of themes across individual children's responses revealed an interesting inconsistency between attitudes towards noise and reported effects of aircraft noise on daily activities. The high noise exposed children consistently reported being affected by aircraft noise with mixed attitudes towards aircraft noise. In contrast, low noise children expressed more negativity towards the noise while reporting that it tended not to influence their activities. This counter-intuitive trend may stem from the fact that children who attend high noise schools have another frame of reference of what are acceptable aircraft overflights, and thus express a neutral or accepting attitude towards noise. This attitude may reflect adaptation to chronic noise exposure. Conversely, for children attending the lower aircraft noise schools, interruptions by aircraft noise may lead to stronger negative attitudes to aircraft noise as the overflights would be occasional and unpredictable events. The empirical evidence for adaptation is equivocal (Cohen et al., 1986; Haines et al., 2001b) Further research is required to disentangle the discrete effects of chronic exposure to environmental noise on adaptation across attitudes, emotional responses, cognitive effects and interference in daily activities.

Environmental Stress Theory

These qualitative results provide additional confirmatory evidence about the nature of the noise effects and mechanism to account for effects. In general the results suggest that children do not perceive noise as overwhelmingly stressful. However, a negative perception of noise exposure was not a necessary requirement for noise pollution to have reported adverse consequences. Children exposed to a specific noise source, namely aircraft noise, reported interference with school work and other daily activities (sport and homework). In support of the learned helplessness model to account for previous noise effects (Cohen et al., 1980; Cohen et al., 1986; Evans et al., 1995), the choice of coping strategy adopted by the children was dependent upon the amount of control they had over the noise source. That is, if aircraft noise was perceived as being an uncontrollable factor, children may feel they are unable to alter its adverse impact on their environment, irrespective of the amount of influence it had on day to day activities. This may account for 'learned helpless' coping strategies such as blocking out aircraft noise or simply waiting for the noise to stop. The potentially adverse consequence this coping strategy can be illustrated by the specific effects of noise on children's cognitive performance.

These studies provide complementary qualitative evidence to support the consistent quantitative finding that complex language based tasks are most effected by chronic noise exposure (Haines et al. 2001c, Evans and Hygge, in press). When asked about the specific effects of noise exposure on school activities a number of children in the high noise schools spontaneously mentioned literacy and English as subjects most disturbed by aircraft overflights. If the children are intermittently interrupted by aircraft over flights and are unable to concentrate on their teacher or school work during lessons, it is not surprising that their learning could be affected (Evans et al., 1995, 1998; Haines et al., 2001a, 2001b, 2001c).

By assessing children's reported coping strategies, we can begin to identify potential mechanisms to account for the learning effects. The most favoured coping strategy suggested by children exposed to aircraft noise was to 'block out' the noise. This supports one of the main assumptions the 'cognitive coping strategies' model , the major theoretical psychological model of environmental stress (Cohen et al., 1986). If it is the case that children adapt to noise exposure by filtering out the unwanted noise stimuli, this strategy may have an adverse consequence or 'cost' of being detrimental to other cognitive functions such as, attention, auditory discrimination and/or speech perception.

Strengths and limitations

These two studies are the first time qualitative data has been collected from children in relation to noise exposure, with the exception of a Swedish study that was conducted concurrently with these studies (Boman and Enmarker, 2000). The sample of children who took part in the focus groups came from a range of countries and primarily lived in urban environments where they would have been exposed to a variety of sources of noise pollution. The sample in the individual interviews provided insight into children exposed to high levels of a specific noise source and a control sample. This sample selection allowed for the measurement of responses from children exposed to a range of noise exposures, including the most extreme case of chronic aircraft noise exposure.

The major limitation of these small scale studies concerns the sampling. The sample sizes of both these studies were small, especially the West London Schools Study sample. The focus group sample was not randomly selected, however, it was a good opportunity to gather data from an international sample of children. The sampling frame for the focus groups was limited by the possibility of selection bias and the lack of control over potential exposure to other environmental stressors. A further limitation is that the method of qualitative data collection employed meant that the result do not allow for comment on the relative strength of the perceived impacts from various sources. Future research with an international sample of children should use larger sample sizes, conduct longer in-depth interviews and measure cultural expectations of ideal noise exposure in environments.

  Summary and Conclusions Top

The children in the focus groups reported being most affected by neighbours' noise and road traffic noise, and children exposed to aircraft noise were most affected by aircraft noise. As expected, the impact of noise pollution on quality of life and everyday activities (e.g. school work, homework and playing) was larger for the children exposed to high levels of aircraft compared with the control and focus group samples. The coping strategies that children employed to combat noise exposure in their lives were dependent upon the impact of noise on their activities and the amount of control they felt they had over the noise source. The emotional response of children to describing the noise annoyance reaction was consistent with adult reactions and it would seem that child noise annoyance is the same construct.

The results from this study suggest that future research should employ qualitative methods to supplement quantitative investigations. Priority subject areas to study should be the impact of neighbours noise, the identification of mechanisms and coping strategies. Children's proactive coping strategies require further investigation to explore the beneficial impact of relaxing environments in providing psychological restoration.

  Acknowledgements Top

We would like to thank the children who took part in focus groups and individual interviews for providing us with thought provoking responses. We would like to acknowledge the tremendous assistance provided by Rhiannon Roberts in collecting these data.

The focus groups were funded by the project "Health effects of noise on children and perception of the risk of noise", supported by the European Commission by Grant Agreement No S12.143779 (99CVF2-601), and from the International Network on Children's Health, Environment and Safety, INCHES. We would like to acknowledge the support of Marie Louise Bistrup, Lis Keiding, Peter van den Hazel from INCHES. We would like to thank Eva Boman and Engela Enmarker for their comments on these studies.

The in-depth qualitative interviews are part of the data collected in the West London Schools Study which was jointly funded by Department of Health and Departments of the Environment and Transport, British Government, United Kingdom. The views expressed in this publication are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the Department of Health and Departments of the Environment and Transport and the Regions.[24]

  References Top

1.Berglund B. and Lindvall T. (1995). Community Noise. Archives of the Center for Sensory Research, 2(1), 1-195.  Back to cited text no. 1    
2.Boman, E., and Enmarker, I. (2000). The Experience of Unwanted Sounds in Schools. Focus groups interviews with students in upper-secondary schools. (Manuscript in progress).  Back to cited text no. 2    
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