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Children in crowded homes have more problems with health, education, parents, Cornell study says

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Children in crowded homes do worse in school and have more frequent conflict with their parents than do those from less crowded surroundings, according to a new Cornell University study.

The study, carried out in Poona, a city of 737,000 in western India, also showed that boys living in crowded conditions have higher blood pressure than girls in similar surroundings. But girls feel more helpless than boys.

"Our study suggests that residential crowding has a variety of harmful effects on children," says Gary W. Evans, Cornell professor of design and environmental analysis, and an international expert on environmental stress such as noise, crowding and air pollution.

"Several of these harmful effects, however, seem to stem from increased parent-child conflict in crowded homes. That conflict, in turn, seems to affect academic performance, behavior in school and some of the other negative effects we've correlated with crowding."

Evans and his colleagues looked at the living conditions of 281 children, ages 10 to 12, in Poona. All were in two-parent households, and the family density ranged from .6 people per room to five people per room. The researchers measured behavioral adjustment, school performance, blood pressure, social support (from family and friends) and helplessness (as defined by how persistent a person is on a challenging task after a brief experience of failure on an unsolvable task).

Evans was able to compare the effects on children living in crowded homes with those in uncrowded homes. All the crowding effects were independent of family income. The study will be published in the December 1998 issue of Child Development.

"Although the vast majority of severely crowded children in the world live in economically underdeveloped countries, nearly all the data on crowding and children so far has come from North America. By looking at children in urban India, we were able to broaden our understanding of residential density and children's well-being," says Evans, who has been studying the stressful effects of crowding for more than two decades.

He says the findings probably are applicable to American children because the data are consistent with previous studies on children and crowding. However, Evans found that the adverse impact of crowding was even stronger than in prior research among adults or children. The reason, he suspects, is because the range of household crowding in India is substantially greater than in previous studies.

Although some researchers believe that Indians might be more "crowding tolerant" because of cultural differences, Evans says, "We find no support for that belief; crowded living conditions clearly had negative consequences for these children just as they do in this country."

The finding that boys in crowded homes had higher blood pressure than girls also is consistent with other studies, Evans says. Several studies have found that crowding tends to physiologically affect men more than women. Likewise, the link between girls in crowded housing and a sense of helplessness is also consistent with studies finding that girls develop helplessness more often than boys do in challenging situations.

The current study was conducted with Stephen J. Lepore, associate professor of psychology at Carnegie Mellon University; B.R. Shejwal, associate professor psychology, and M.N. Palsane, professor of psychology, both at the University of Poona. It follows up on Cornell work four years ago by Evans' colleague, Lorraine Maxwell, assistant professor of design and environmental analysis, that found that preschoolers who live in crowded homes and go to crowded day-care centers suffer more severe behavioral and cognitive development problems than children in just one of these crowded settings.

In a related study, Evans found that architectural design, specifically architectural depth -- the number of spaces one must pass through to get from one room to another -- can reduce the negative psychological effects of crowding in homes.

The current study was funded, in part, by the National Science Foundation, the University of Poona and Fulbright and Indo-American fellowships.