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What Children Need to Know About Headphone Use and Hearing

Playing music loudly is damaging kids' hearing.

Key points

  • More kids have had their hearing damaged by noise. Headphone use is a major cause.
  • Parent should talk to children about what hearing loss feels like, the sensation of tinnitus, and how hearing can disappear without warning.
  • Kids should aim to play headphones at no more 50 percent of full volume; 100 percent is 110 decibels, the same as a siren.
Emily Wade/Unsplash
Source: Emily Wade/Unsplash

Loud sounds are bad for us, and piping them directly into your ears makes it worse.

You may have read warnings about the dangers of headphones but not taken them too seriously. However, a large study published in June makes a strong case: When researchers compared hearing exams for thousands of adults in Norway at two points, 20 years apart, they confirmed that those who reported using personal music devices at high volume had worse hearing.

Today's children are especially in danger, retired audiologist Jan Mayes told me. If small children use headphones, by their teens to early twenties they might have trouble understanding speech in noisy places. By the time these children are in their mid-40s, they might be as hard of hearing as their grandparents are today, in their 70s and 80s, added Daniel Fink, an internist and board chair of The Quiet Coalition.

Damaged hearing is already a problem. More than 1 out of 10 kids in the US (ages 6 to 19)—and nearly 1 out of 5 adults under 70—has suffered permanent damage to their hearing from noise, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports.

Katie Gerrard/Unsplash
Source: Katie Gerrard/Unsplash

One effect of children's use of headphones and earbuds is more kids with tinnitus. Tinnitus—typically ringing in the ears—is an early symptom. There’s been a “mad influx” of kids reporting the problem in the last year, said audiologist Lisa Vaughan of Cook Children's Health Care System in Fort Worth about what her clinic has been seeing.

Your kids need your guidance: It can be hard to know how loud is too loud when listening via headphones. On an ordinary music device, you might hear sounds as high as 94-110 dBA. Less than two minutes at 110 dBA can damage anyone’s ears, Mayes told me.

Listening to these blasts—or at more reasonable volumes but for too long—leaves its mark. It can damage the hair cells in the ears that transmit sound to the brain. It can also interrupt the connection between those cells and nerve cells, and the auditory nerve may degenerate.

What You Can Do

Depending on your child’s age, explain the problem: Even a volume they enjoy can damage their ears. It doesn’t have to “hurt” to be bad for them. Also, hearing loss can come suddenly. They might not have any warning.

Have a talk about what damaged hearing actually feels like. Explain that they might hear weird buzzing or ringing or other noises (tinnitus) when they’re trying to concentrate on something else—even the music they love. Tinnitus is also often accompanied by a feeling of pressure or fullness. Children sometimes think other people can hear the ringing in their ears, so make sure they understand the concept.

They might become sensitive to noise and have spells when everything is too loud (hyperacusis), and the clatter of dishes in another room gives them pain.

If they develop hearing loss, that doesn’t just mean some sounds are softer. Explain that it can be hard to understand what people are saying to you with hearing loss, and you can feel left out in groups. You might even get laughed at. Although hearing aids help enormously, they don’t give you back precisely the hearing you had before, and they don’t usually entirely banish hyperacusis or tinnitus.

The bottom line: Listening to loud music might feel cool, but hearing loss is a high price to pay.

Volume limits help, but kids often know workarounds

If your child is resistant, set up a time when they can talk to someone with damaged hearing. Maybe your son is an aspiring pop music star. His guitar teacher can explain that many musicians live with tinnitus and hyperacusis.

Set volume limits together. You want a tween or teen to be on your side. Although a parent can set a max on the volume on both Android and iPhones, a tech-savvy child can get around them and also easily find apps online that help increases the volume even further.

"Even when young, kids know how to deactivate any safe listening settings their parents might set. I sat with my kids while they set [a safe max] on their device. We talked about how obviously they could switch them off and listen unsafely if they wanted to. It was another opportunity for us to talk about protecting their hearing health," Mayes said.

Aim for 50 Percent of Full Volume

Some headphones and earbuds advertise that they limit volume—but they don’t always deliver on that promise. Also, the industry-standard maximum volume, 85 dBA (equal to a lawnmower or leaf blower), isn’t a safe bet. That number comes from regulations to protect adults on the job, factories or airports, and the like. If you don’t want your child to run the risk of hearing loss, 70 dBA would be more reasonable, a 2018 WHO report and 2019 paper argued. That’s typically about 50 percent volume on your device.

To help your child understand these numbers, here are the average decibel ratings of some familiar sounds:

  • Normal conversation: 50-60 dBA and 60-70 dBA with background noise or shouting.
  • Movie theater: 74-104 dBA.
  • Motorcycles and dirt bikes: 80-110 dBA.
  • Music through headphones at maximum volume, sporting events, and concerts: 94-110 dBA.
  • Sirens: 110-129 dBA.
  • Fireworks show: 140-160 dBA.

Fink said that people who use a personal audio system for more than an hour a day at more than 50 percent volume for more than five years are risking their ears. Other risks like tinnitus, hyperacusis, or trouble in noisy situations can happen sooner.

“The goal is to listen well below 70 dBA to give a margin of safety, especially for children's ears. This means listening as low as comfortable below 50 percent volume setting,” Mayes said.

Here are other expert tips for preserving kids' hearing:

Ben Mullins/Unsplash
Source: Ben Mullins/Unsplash
  • Establish listening breaks. The damage from loud noise is cumulative. Even a break every hour will give the hair cells in the inner ear a rest. One strategy: A rule that kids must take their headphones off if they go to the kitchen or bathroom.

  • Consider noise-canceling headphones rather than earbuds. This helps reduce background volume, so users are less tempted to turn up the volume to mask other sounds.
  • Teach your children not to turn up the volume in noisy places. If they’re often using their headphones in noisy places, a noise-canceling model is essential.
  • Don’t use headphones while sleeping, at least not overnight; napping on a train or plane might be okay at the right volume.
  • Test your child’s hearing at least every three years. Also, ask your child to report any symptoms—ringing, muffling, fluttering, thumping, sensitivity, distortion, pain–even if they don’t last. Temporary signs might return and become permanent. They should also report if they ever feel that they can’t understand what people are saying.

It's not easy to go against the tide. Your child might say, "But all the other kids play music loud on their headphones!" That's a moment to explain that being different sometimes means you're doing the right thing.

A version of this piece appears at Healthy Hearing.

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