As any parent (or teacher) knows, getting your child to listen is hard. Really hard at times. “Selective deafness” infuriates parents and teachers alike. But this problem is compounded when children have mp3 players (iPhones and iPods) constantly attached to their ears. Many parents joke that their child’s hearing capacity has been hampered by all of the loud music that they listen to, but this might not actually be far from reality.
These days more and more children are plugged into headphones and often from younger ages (I saw a toddler at a café the other week with some very fancy headphones placed over her head!).
In the seminars and workshops I deliver parents and educators are increasingly asking me about the safety of headphones with young children.
Is it healthy or harmful to let children use headphones?
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I’ve examined some of the research (because you know that I love to do this) and I must admit that I was shocked. There are concerns that there has been an increase in the number of children (and teenagers and young adults) presenting with noise-induced hearing over the last decade. And this is likely to increase given the number of children and teenagers who use headphones with mobile and personal listening devices like iPods and mp3 players.
Noise-Induced Hearing Loss
In fact, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that a billion young people worldwide could be at risk of hearing loss due to unsafe listening practices.
Anecdotally audiologists confirm that they’re treating more and more young children and adolescents for tinnitus (ringing in the ears) and noise-induced hearing loss.
It is estimated that 12.5% of children and adolescents aged 6–19 years (approximately 5.2 million) have suffered permanent damage to their hearing because of excessive noise exposure.
Some of this may be attributed to industrial exposure in developing countries, but audiologists suggest that much of this damage is attributed to excessive exposure to loud music via personal listening devices like mp3 players and iPods.
Noise-induced hearing loss is a serious and permanent condition. And it’s irreversible. It’s associated with incorrect and/or excessive headphone use, or exposure to loud music. Whilst it can occur as a result of exposure to one loud noise, it typically occurs because of repeated exposure to loud sounds over time.
What are the symptoms of noise-induced hearing loss?
Symptoms of noise-induced hearing loss include:
- muffled or distorted sound,
- feeling of pressure in the ear,
- difficulties understanding speech and/or ringing sounds in the ear in silence (tinnitus).
What’s Safe Levels?
Generally, conversations have a decibel (dB) reading of 60dB, loud traffic can be approximately 80 dB and planes, firecrackers and motorcycles can be anywhere from 120dB to 140dB. We also know that an increase of 10dB doubles the perceived loudness of the sound. What’s concerning is that mp3 players can reach more than 130dB (contingent upon the model of mp3 player and brand of headphones used).
Research confirms that consistent headphones above 75dB can cause permanent hearing loss. The damage is also cumulative. This means that early exposure to loud noises can cause premature hearing loss.
3 Tips for Healthy Hearing in a Digital Age
- Volume Control– Show your child how to adjust the volume on their headphones (ideally it would be below 75dB). Whilst it’s difficult to specify a precise decibel level on most commercially-available headphones, you can teach your child about relatively appropriate sound levels. With some headphones and mp3 players you can use the settings to place a limit on the maximum decibel level on the device. You’ll need to check with individual manufacturers as to how to do this.
- Use Noise–Cancelling Headphones– These will allow the music to be heard at lower levels of volume because the background noises are minimised.
- Monitor Time– Monitor how much time they spend using headphones. Again, because of the risk of cumulative damage, we need to monitor how much time children spend with headphones to minimise any potential risk and premature onset of hearing loss.