Fluorescent Lighting & Children's Behavior

Fluorescent lighting is inexpensive and energy-efficient, making it a popular choice for schools and homes 1. However, some studies indicate that fluorescent lighting may affect behavior in children, especially those with existing behavioral problems or conditions, such as autism 1. Although studies have not definitively determined the extent or cause of this relationship, they suggest that a child's environment -- including lighting -- does impact his behavior and learning.

Fluorescent Light Basics

Fluorescent lights produce illumination by conducting an electrical current through gases. Fluorescent lights use less energy than incandescent lights and last 10 times longer, according to the U.S. Department of Energy 1. Fluorescent lights are available in different color temperatures, including "full-spectrum" lighting, which is a marketing term indicating that a light has a color temperature similar to daylight 1. However, full-spectrum lighting is still about 100 times less intense than sunlight, reports Seattle.gov.

Research Findings

Studies testing the effects of fluorescent lighting have had mixed results 1. A 1976 study published in the "Journal of Autism and Childhood Schizophrenia" found that six autistic children performed repetitive behaviors more frequently in fluorescent light compared to incandescent light, possibly because of flickering in fluorescent lighting 13. A 1978 study published in the "Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology" tested seven first-graders with hyperactivity or behavior problems and found that cool-white fluorescent lights had no impact compared to daylight-simulating fluorescent light 4. Other studies have found benefits to full-spectrum lighting, but much of this research has been poorly executed, according to the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities 2.

Daylight vs. Electric Light

Studies have also compared environments that utilize daylight to those that rely on electric light, generally finding that daylight improves behavior and academic performance. For example, a 1999 study by the Heschong Mahone Group found that students in classrooms with natural light made significantly faster academic progress than students in classrooms with little to no artificial light. According to the National Clearinghouse for Educational Facilities, "there is sufficient reason to believe that daylight provides the best lighting conditions." 2


The placement and selection of lights can be as important as the source of illumination. Generally, areas need both ambient light -- general, overall light -- as well as task lighting, which illuminates a specific area such as a desk. Finally, lighting is only one factor in a child's environment. Studies show that children are also affected by indoor air quality, the color of walls, temperature, humidity and background noise.