Dangerous Decibels: Are Headphones Harming Children’s Hearing?
Getting kids to listen is difficult at the best of times.
We often joke that our children’s hearing may have been harmed because of all of the loud music that they listen to. But there may be some truth in this claim.
Noise-induced hearing loss is a serious and permanent condition. It’s associated with incorrect and/or excessive headphone use, or exposure to loud music. And we need to be concerned about young children’s exposure to loud noise, given that many children now regularly use headphones (and often at excessive levels).
The World Health Organisation (WHO)* estimates that 1.1 billion people worldwide could be affected by noise-induced hearing loss because of unsafe use of personal music devices including mp3 players and smartphones and exposure to noisy entertainment venues.
How do our ears work?
Ears convert the vibrations of sound waves into signals that our brains interpret as sounds. If ears are exposed to excessive sound pressure, it can damage the hair cells in the ears that hamper their ability to transmit sound to the brain. Consequently, this can result in noise-induced hearing loss, which is permanent.
What are the symptoms of noise-induced hearing loss?
Symptoms of noise-induced hearing loss include:
- muffled or distorted sound
- feelings of pressure in the ear
- difficulties understanding speech
- ringing sounds in the ear in silence (tinnitus).
Noise-induced hearing loss can occur as a result of exposure to one loud noise. However, it typically occurs because of repeated exposure to loud sounds over time. And this is why we need to be concerned about children’s use of headphones. They do often blast them to their highest volume and often on a regular basis. This could be potentially having harmful consequences on their hearing.
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. The WHO is worried enough that they’ve produced guidelines for safe listening practices and many governments around the world are undertaking awareness campaigns as it’s recognised as a growing health concern.
Consistent use of headphones above 75dB can cause permanent hearing loss. What’s most concerning is that most commercial mp3 players can reach more than 130dB (contingent upon the model of mp3 player and brand of headphones used).
A child’s duration and exposure are important to consider.
Like many aspects of children’s ‘digital health’ we may not yet have a comprehensive picture from the research at this point in time (raising my hand here as a researcher to acknowledge that we’re slow in keeping up with the advances in technology), but we don’t want to wait until it’s too late and have compromised children’s hearing in the process. Again, this is why precautionary measures are essential when it comes to young children using headphones.
Tips for healthy hearing
- Volume control– Show children 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, we can teach children about relatively appropriate sound levels. With some headphones and mp3 players we can use the settings to place a limit on the maximum decibel level on the device. Check with individual manufacturers as to how to do this.
- Monitor time– Try, where possible, to limit children’s time to less than 60 minutes/day with headphones.
- Use noise-cancelling headphones– Use ear-muff type headphones as these cancel some of the background noise, making it easier for children to listen to the music, without having competing background noise.
*World Health Organization. (2015). Make Listening Safe. World Health Organization.
Are you worried about your child’s use of headphones? Do you enforce rules regarding headphones?
I talk to parents throughout Australia about screen-time and how parents can help their children use technology in healthy and helpful ways (and also minimise any potential risks). If you’re interested in having me speak at your pre-school, school local council or community group, Click here to find out more.