Children's headphone use puts them at risk of early-onset hearing loss, experts say
The popularity of headphones and earbuds has soared—and the market is projected to grow 20 percent a year in the next five years. But there’s a problem: Your children, teens or young adults could easily be putting their hearing at risk.
Uncertain future for children's hearing
Loud sounds are bad for us. As retired audiologist Jan Mayes told Healthy Hearing, if small children use headphones, they might have trouble understanding speech in noisy places as early as their teens to early twenties.
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, observes Dr. Daniel Fink, an internist and board chair of the Quiet Coalition.
Hearing loss already a problem
More than 1 out of every 10 kids in the US (ages 6 to 19)—and nearly 1 out of 5 of adults under 70—already have suffered permanent damage to their hearing from noise, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports. This is known as noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL), which is highly preventable.
About half of the population between the ages of 12 and 35 is at risk of damaged hearing because of loud sounds, according to the World Health Organization. Headphone and earbuds play a big role in this: When researchers compared hearing exams for a large cross-section 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.
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.
This all adds up. Noise damages hearing and leads to hearing loss and tinnitus. Meanwhile, over time, hearing loss increases your risk of social isolation, falls and accidents and, in later life, cognitive decline and depression.
How loud noises from headphones hurt your ears
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.
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 parents can do: Talk to your kids and keep the conversation ongoing
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 with hearing loss, it can be hard to understand what people are saying to you, and you can feel left out in groups. You might even get laughed at. Although hearing aids help enormously, but they don’t give you back exactly 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 big price to pay.
Volume limits help, but kids often know workarounds
If your child is really resistant, set up a time when he or she 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 increase 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 own 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 below 50% 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, in 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 WHO 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:
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, Fink told Healthy Hearing. 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.
Listening breaks are a great idea
Teach your children to take 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 they must take the headphones off if they go to the kitchen or bathroom.
Consider noise-cancelling headphones, rather than earbuds. This helps reduce background volume so they're less tempted to turn up the volume to mask other sounds.
Teach your children NOT to turn up the volume in loud places. If they’re often using their headphones in noisy places a noise-cancelling model is essential.
Don’t use headphones for sleeping overnight (napping on transit 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 symptoms mean they might return and become permanent. They should also report if they ever feel that they can’t understand what people are saying.
“Looking for safe headphones or a safe personal audio system/personal music player/personal listening device is like looking for a safe cigarette. You won’t find one," Fink said. "Your ears are too precious to damage with personal audio systems. People survived for millennia without a personal sound track for their lives and you can too. Read a book. Look out the window. Listen to the birds. Talk to your seat mate. You might find that things will be fine."