Ages & Stages 11-18: Follow These Rules to Prevent Hearing Loss

No right-thinking parent would let a child wear sunglasses if there was a chance they would damage his or her eyes. Yet millions of parents allow their kids to wear itty bitty headphones, despite growing evidence that they can harm hearing.

For years, experts have known that consistent exposure to loud sound, including amplified music, erodes hearing. Now, kids are pumping decibels directly into their ears with the headphones that are standard equipment for MP3 players, cell phones and even video games. In one study done several years ago, researchers found that 12.5 percent of kids between 6 to 19 already had measurable hearing loss. Today the results would probably be worse.

Earbud earphones that fit directly into the ear are the worst culprits. According to research done at Harvard, they often deliver sound almost 10 decibels higher than headphones that cover the ear. That’s because tiny earphones don’t block out surrounding sound very well, so kids turn up the volume to dangerous levels.

To understand exactly what’s happening, picture the cochlea, a seashell-shaped structure inside the ear that’s filled with fluid and lined with tiny hair cells that wave gently like anemones. The hair cells pick up sound vibrations and transmit them to the auditory nerve. When hair cells are blasted by sound, they start to look like a wheat field after a windstorm. Damage can be done both by short exposure to really loud sound or by continuous exposure to lower levels of sound.

Kids don’t notice damage to hair cells because it’s gradual and painless. It’s also permanent. That’s why parents have to step in to be sure the sounds kids hear when they are young won’t compromise their ability to hear when they are older. Here’s what you should do:

• Learn about hearing loss. A Web site called Dangerous Decibels (dangerousdecibels.org) includes games that help kids understand both how the ear works and how loud sounds cause damage. Encourage young music lovers to visit Web sites like hearnet.com where they’ll find wish-I-had-known stories by famous musicians who can no longer enjoy music because of hearing loss.

• Understand decibels. Sound is measured in decibels, but decibels aren’t like inches. For each 10 decibel increase, the intensity of sound doubles. Sounds over 85 decibels harm hearing, but adults may not recognize dangerously loud sounds, especially if they already have hearing loss. An interactive chart, available from the National Institute on Deafness and other Communication Disorders, can help you get a grip on sounds that are likely to be harmful (www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/education/decibel/decibel.asp). Another alternative is to purchase a sound meter from a company like Radio Shack. Even though the meters aren’t cheap, they are a quick and definitive way to end arguments about what’s “too loud.”

• Replace bud earphones. Earphones that cover the ear with a cushion may not be as stylish but they are less likely to cause damage. When using the earphones, your child should be able to hear you when you speak to him and you should not be able to “bleed out” sound if you are standing three feet away.
• Look for controls. When purchasing new equipment that uses headphones, check to see whether volume controls are preset at the factory. Newer models of the Apple iPod, for example, include volume control software. (A tutorial explaining how to set the controls is at http://docs.info.apple.com/article.html?artnum=303414. For older equipment, use the Earsaver Volume Limiter (available at earplugstore.com) or mark the level of acceptable sound on the volume control with permanent marker.

• Limit exposure. Set limits on how long your child is allowed to use headphones each day. Experts recommend no more than one hour. At other times, have your child listen to music over speakers you can hear. That way you can control the volume — and you can find out what kind of music your child enjoys.

• Use earplugs. When kids are going to be exposed to loud sounds, perhaps because they are attending a concert, seeing a loud movie or even cutting the grass, have them wear ear plugs. Although you can find earplugs at drugstores, sporting good stores and music stores, it’s also worth checking out the huge assortment of specialized earplugs at wwww.earplugstore.com. Suggest that young musicians, for example, choose brands like Hearos or Mack’s Hear Plugs, which reduce harmful sound without distortion.

• Be alert for signs of hearing loss. Temporary hearing loss or ringing in the ears is a clear indication that hair cells are in trouble and your child should find a quieter activity immediately. Remember that headphones aren’t the only source of harmful sound. Even squeeze toys for babies can cause damaging levels of noise. So can loudspeakers at school dances, boomboxes and car stereos. Be sure your child understands that the ears don’t “get used to” loud sounds. When loud sounds become more tolerable, it’s because hearing has already been damaged.

Finally, I need to confess that, from my point of view, protecting hearing is something more than a good thing to do if you get around to it. My daughter was born deaf, and she struggles every day to understand speech and other sounds that the rest of us take for granted. I had no choice about my daughter’s hearing loss. If your child can hear today, you do have a choice about how well he or she will hear in the future.

Supervising the way your child uses headphones will probably be a hassle. I also have two music-loving sons and, even though they know the consequences of hearing loss for their sister, they often want to argue when I say “turn it down.” It’s one argument I’m determined to win. You should be too.

Carolyn Jabs is a former contributing editor of Family PC and mother of three computer-savvy kids.