Research led by psychology doctoral student Kimberly L. Meidenbauer, AM’16, shows that although children have a preference for urban settings, they can still reap the psychological benefits of the great outdoors, including better mood, lower stress, and reduced attention deficit hyperactivity disorder symptoms. (Photography by moonjazz (CC BY-SA 2.0))

UChicago research roundup

New findings on pollution's dangers, internet speeds, the power of light, and the great outdoors.

Just a (mega)bit better

When it comes to watching video, is faster internet service worth the price tag? Amid projections that video streaming will account for 82 percent of internet traffic by 2022, the Wall Street Journal set out to investigate. Getting help from a team led by computer science professor Nick Feamster, the newspaper gave its answer in August: no. Using a new method, published August 14 on arXiv (PDF), that improves the ability to infer the quality of video streaming from encrypted traffic, the researchers compared start-up delays, picture resolution, and other quality measures on Amazon, YouTube, Netflix, and Twitch on 66 home networks with a range of service plans over 16 months. Most consumers paying a premium for speeds of 100 megabits per second or more enjoyed only marginal improvements in performance, even when streaming up to seven videos simultaneously.

Pollution on the mind

Living in places with poor air quality increases the risk of a host of psychiatric disorders, an August 20 paper in PLOS Biology found. Professor of medicine and human genetics Andrey Rzhetsky and computational biologist Atif Khan were among a team that analyzed inpatient and outpatient claims from a US health insurance database of 151 million individuals against levels of 87 air pollutants across the nation. The most polluted counties had 27 percent more bipolar disorder and 6 percent more major depression. To validate the findings, the researchers turned to national treatment registers of 1.4 million people born in Denmark. They found 29 percent more bipolar disorder in the most polluted counties there, and an even stronger correlation than in the United States between early childhood pollution exposure and major depression, schizophrenia, and personality disorders.

Bright lights, safer city

Shining a light on high-crime areas of New York City makes those spots safer, found a May 2019 National Bureau of Economic Research working paper by a team that included the UChicago Crime Lab’s Jason Lerner and Lucie Parker. The researchers identified 80 public housing projects with high rates of the most serious crimes—murder, robbery, and felony assault, for example—and worked with the city to install temporary light towers in half. The 40 communities and the towers’ locations within them were randomly selected. Nighttime crimes near the towers fell by 60 percent, and the larger complexes saw a 36 percent drop. Knowing from previous studies that violent crime tends to be geographically concentrated and that criminals focus on short-term factors when deciding to commit a crime, the researchers argue that small changes like the towers have the power to make a significant impact.

City pickers

It’s well documented in environmental psychology that adults strongly prefer natural to urban environments, but it’s not well understood why. New research led by psychology doctoral student Kimberly L. Meidenbauer, AM’16, examined young children’s wilderness love or lack thereof and whether the adult preference is innate. Meidenbauer and her colleagues, who published their results in the Journal of Environmental Psychology, spoke to 4- to 11-year-olds and their parents living in rural and developed settings. Both were asked to rank pictures of natural and built places, and the adults were questioned about their children’s home and school environments. Children, they found, have a “robust preference” for urban settings that decreases with age. And the data suggested they reap the psychological benefits of green places regardless of preference, including better mood, lower stress, and reduced attention deficit hyperactivity disorder symptoms.