Related Help Pages: Hearing loss Prevention Children

Protecting Kids from Hearing Loss: A Matter of Top Priority

We all know that prolonged exposure to loud noise is harmful to our hearing, right? Many studies have come up with the same conclusion, and even World Health Organization is warning us that “Exposure to excessive noise is the major avoidable cause of permanent hearing impairment worldwide.”

So if you follow this logic – and you should, because it’s based on hard facts – then you will understand how dangerous chronic noise is to children and teens, and how crucial it is to protect their vulnerable ears before the damage is done.

Unfortunately, for some this message is coming too late. U.S. government survey data shows that approximately 5.2 million children ages 6 to 19 already have permanent damage to their ears' hair cells caused by exposure to loud noises. Sadly, these kids may suffer not only from diminished hearing, but also from impaired language development, ability to learn, and social interactions.

That’s enough to make all of us sit up and listen, and, hopefully, act before it’s too late.

85 – a magic number

volume control
Turn it left to not exceed 85 dB

Recent studies show that exposure to harmful noise levels triggers the formation of molecules inside the ear, which play an important role in hearing loss in children. Although noise is harmful to people of all ages, kids’ hearing is particularly fragile because their ear canals are much smaller than adults.’ As a matter of fact, even a brief exposure to a very loud noise can result in permanent damage.

What, you may ask, is the definition of “harmful” noise? Any noise level louder that 85 decibels (dB) –for example, sounds emitted by busy city traffic or power lawn mowers - is considered by hearing health professionals as potentially hazardous.

That is why federal guidelines require hearing protection be worn in the workplace where noise levels exceed the 85 dB threshold. If adult workers can impair their hearing by being exposed to this level of noise, imagine what damage it can do to young ears.

And just because your kids are not working in a noisy factory or on an ear-shattering construction site, doesn’t mean they are not at risk. There are many sources of excessive noise in their environment, including toys and music.

Toy story

Yes, you heard it right – as incredible as it sounds, some toys can actually damage your child’s hearing. Every year, otolaryngologists at the Minnesota-based Sight and Hearing Association buy the most commonly available toys to test them for noise levels in a soundproof chamber.

Out of 18 toys put to test in 2008, 14 measured over 100 dB – equivalent of sound emitted by a jet engine. That, of course, should alarm any parent, especially since some of these noisy toys are intended for tots as young as 18 months.

The obvious answer is not to buy noisy toys for your children in the first place. If they already have some, inspect all the toys. If they sound too loud to you, they will certainly be too loud for a child. Remove the batteries. As that old saying goes: “Better safe than sorry.”

Of course, as they grow, kids’ ears will be assaulted by a variety of other noises, and loud music is at the top of the list.

Face the music

boy listening to music
Does he understand the dangers of loud music?

We may not like the kind of music kids listen to these days, but the real danger lies in the hazards associated with the prolonged use – or, should we say abuse – of portable music players.

At maximum volume, such players emit about 105 decibels – far above the 85dB threshold. And since they offer longer battery life and hold lots of music, kids listen to these devices relentlessly– much longer than good sense dictates.

True, teens are not known for common sense, and often live in denial of the obvious. That fact is borne out by the findings of a Dutch focus-group study, reported in the Journal of Pediatrics. Discussions with students at two high schools in the Netherlands revealed that the teens were aware of the damaging effect of loud music, yet still opted to play their iPods at maximum pitch because they believed – mistakenly of course – that they were immune to hearing loss.

And don’t think that this phenomenon is prevalent only in other countries. Not so. Other studies, including ones carried out in the United States, concur with these findings.

Faced with such irresponsible attitude, what can a parent, grandparent or an educator do to protect the children’s hearing? There are some steps you can take. Let an expert tell you how to go about it.

Listen to reason

That expert is Brian J. Fligor, Sc.D., CCC-A, Director of Diagnostic Audiology at Children's Hospital in Boston and Instructor in Otology and Laryngology at Harvard Medical School. His advice:

  1. Get children’s hearing tested annually. This helps teach them that their hearing is important.
  2. Parents should model good “aural hygiene” themselves – use earplugs when around loud equipment – like lawnmowers, leaf blowers, and power tools. Typically any time a person would think “I should probably use safety goggles” – likely you should use hearing protection also.
  3. Help a child to appreciate silence – it’s becoming a rarer commodity, as population densities in cities and towns increase, traffic noise, airplanes, combustion engines, etc., invade the soundscape.
  4. If your children like to listen to music, let them! But talk with them about making good decisions about how high they turn the level. Every MP3 player I have seen can be turned too loud, but every player can be used at a reasonable level. Keeping the volume to not higher than ½ way up is safe for hours of use, regardless of a headphone used.
  5. If your child (or you) has trouble keeping the volume control low, is it because of background noise? If so, upgrade your headphones to the kind that block out background noise – earphones that completely seal up the ear canal can be very effective at reducing how much background noise interferes, and research has shown that most people moderate their listening levels, even in high level background noise, as long as the earphone provides a good seal in the ear canal.

Begin with education

If you are seeking further resources to educate children on the dangers of noise and how to practice healthy hearing, the following is a list of notable and reputable resources designed for children. Many of these resources provide hearing conservation programs, games, educational materials, posters and fact sheets that parents, grandparents and educators can use in their quest to educate and convince the young that hearing matters now.

You can also visit our Healthy Hearing Help section to learn more about noise-induced hearing loss.

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