Cutting the Cord: How Headphones Affect Your Child’s Hearing
Ah, electronics. Those iPads, tablets, MP3 players, iPods and gaming devices have been considered a boon to traveling families as they head out for spring break and summer vacation road trips and plane rides. They entertain, cut down on backseat fights and generally make a long car ride a more pleasant experience.
But what about the headphones your children are using? “No sweat,” you may think, “I bought the kind that are for kids.”
If you did, you’re probably like most parents who trusted that the headphones — which are advertised as limiting the allowable volume on the set to safeguard hearing — did the job. But pediatricians and audiologists are now warning parents that it might not be the case.
In a recent story in the New York Times, it was revealed that the publication’s product recommendation group called “The Wirecutter” found that half of the 30 sets of children’s headphones they tested did not restrict the volume level as well as advertised.
Half of 8- to 12-year-olds listen to music daily, and about 75 percent of all teens do, according to research by Common Sense Media. Add to that watching movies and TV shows, playing games and other activities, the matter of what kind of headphones you choose for your child becomes a much bigger issue.
The Centers for Disease Control recommends a workplace threshold for volume at no more than 85 decibels for no longer than eight hours. “But there is no mandatory standard that restricts the maximum sound output for listening devices or headphones sold in the United States,” the New York Times said.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health says that 85 decibels is the recommended maximum exposure limit. The threshold of pain, according to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDOCD), is 125 decibels. At 85 decibels, hearing damage begins to occur.
A study of devices published by the American Academy of Audiology showed that most portable devices could produce volume levels of 97 to 107 decibels. The Wirecutter tested devices to see if they would at least limit volume to 85 decibels — the recommended threshold for workplace noise levels.
In two different tests, the loudest headphones registered volume levels of 108 to 114 decibels. Half of the headphones tested exceeded the 85-decibel threshold. The report went on to list headphones that did appear to avoid exceeding the 85-decibel threshold.
So what should a parent do?
“Supervision is crucial,” said Cynthia G. Webb, M.D., a physician and pediatrician on the medical staff at Texas Health Plano. “Parents should try the headphones themselves first to see how loud the maximum sound is. If it’s too loud for the parent, it’s too loud for the child.”
“Keep the volume at 60 percent,” she added. “Encourage your child to take breaks every hour to allow the hair cells in the inner ear to rest. Nonstop listening can eventually damage them.”
And one of Webb’s rules of thumb is actually the easiest and most low-tech: “If a parent is at an arm’s length away, a child wearing headphones should still be able to hear when asked a question,” she said. “Let that sink in: If they can’t hear you, that level of noise is unsafe and potentially damaging.”
The Better Hearing Institute agrees, adding, “being able to overhear your child’s headphones is not a good way to tell if they are listening too loud! If you can hear it, their music might be too loud, but just because you can’t hear it doesn’t mean the levels are OK.”
So are kid-friendly headphones and earbuds a waste of money? Webb says no, but parents should definitely do their research.
“Some headphones that are marketed for children as safe for their hearing are a waste of money,” she said. “Some appropriately limit the noise exposure. Do your research, read reviews, and try them yourself before letting your children use them.”
“Also, headphones that are not labeled as kid-safe most likely have no sound limiting features.”
According to the NIDOCD, hearing loss can happen quickly. “The louder the sound, the shorter the amount of time it takes for NIHL (noise-induced hearing loss) to happen,” the organization warned.
Signs that you may have sustained some hearing damage can include a ringing in the ears, Allis Cho, an ear, nose and throat specialist and physician on the medical staff at Texas Health Arlington Memorial said.
“Besides hearing loss, you can have tinnitus, which is when you hear ringing sounds in your ear, but it can also be roaring or cricket sounds,” she added.
And once that hearing loss has happened, it likely won’t ever come back.
“Usually hearing loss from nerve damage cannot be repaired. Once the nerve is injured, it’s gone,” Cho said. “There is another type of hearing loss that is conductive that can be repaired, but you have to get a hearing test to find out which kind of hearing loss you have.”
Protecting hearing, Webb said, is something both adults and children should do — meaning parents can also model proper hearing protection.
“The same rules apply for adults as for kids,” Webb said.
The Better Hearing Institute recommends the following steps:
- Limit exposure to loud activities at home. Monitor your listening level and how long you are listening to personal listening devices (like MP3 players, such as iPods).
- Encourage your children to use their headphones conservatively.
- Consider investing in higher quality earphones that block out background noise, to help you moderate your listening levels in noisier places.
- Buy quieter products (compare dB ratings and ask for low-noise products).
- Keep an “eye” on your hearing – see a hearing health professional routinely for hearing testing, or if offered through your employer, ensure you know your hearing test results and track it year-to-year.
Have concerns about your hearing, or your child’s? Find an ENT or pediatrician with our physician finder or by calling 1-877-THR-WELL.