Kids to Parents: What?

A new survey of experts finds that teens who use digital music players don’t take measures to protect their hearing—which means their parents have to.

May 13, 2009

RODALE NEWS, EMMAUS, PA—It’s widely assumed that teenagers “just don’t listen.” But what more and more studies of iPod and MP3 player use in teens indicate is that many of them can’t hear—or soon won’t be able to—thanks to hearing loss inflicted by the music players. A survey of medical and other experts published this month in the journal Pediatrics calls for more attention to be paid to the problem, both by manufacturers and public health officials.

THE DETAILS: Exposure to loud sounds can damage inner ear hair cells, which are the main receptors for transmitting sound waves to the brain. The resulting damage, called noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL), can cause ringing in the ears, inability to hear high frequencies, and trouble following conversations in noisy situations. “At first the damage is temporary, like the muffled hearing you get when you step out into the street after a loud concert or party,” says Richard Rosenfeld, MD, chairman of otolaryngology at Long Island College Hospital in Brooklyn, and a spokesperson for the American Academy of Pediatrics. “The hearing loss, however, can become permanent, depending on the loudness of the sound and the duration of the exposure.” NIHL may result from listening to a 90-decibel sound (such as a motorcycle) for more than 8 hours, a 100-decibel sound (a lawn mower) for more than 60 minutes, or a 105-decibel sound (a helicopter) for as little as 15 minutes, says Dr. Rosenfeld. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration recommends wearing hearing protectors if your exposure is longer.


As for MP3 players, says Dr. Rosenfeld, you would have to listen to high volumes repeatedly and for extended time periods to experience hearing loss. Some MP3 players, however, can generate sound levels of 120 decibels (equivalent to that of a plane taking off) when used with earbuds, a level that could damage hearing after even a short period of exposure. With this data in mind, a group of physicians from the Netherlands recently polled 30 experts from the fields of science, education, and entertainment, among others, to try to identify strategies to prevent hearing loss in teens who listen to portable MP3 players at high volumes. Two key recommendations emerged: 1) authorities should encourage manufacturers to make safer products. And 2) there should be more public health campaigns to make people more aware of the risk of damage and to tell them how to protect themselves.

WHAT IT MEANS: The experts have given up on the notion that teens may self-regulate MP3 use to protect their hearing. In fact, studies have shown that shown that high school students are well aware that blasting MP3 players can damage their hearing—yet they do so anyway.

Here’s how to convince your teen of the dangers of listening to MP3 players at high volumes—and prevent any damage before it occurs:

• Offer to buy the kid a hearing aid. Remind your child that their ears have to last them a lifetime. “We all get some degree of hearing loss as we age, especially in the high frequencies,” says Dr. Rosenfeld. “But any additional damage incurred in childhood is cumulative, which accelerates the hearing loss later in life. Unfortunately, this type of hearing loss is not reversible; the only solution is hearing aids.”

• Point out the signs. Make sure your child knows the warning signs of hearing loss. The first symptoms are ringing or fullness in your ears after listening, or a sensation that speech sounds are muffled. One common complaint is trouble understanding conversations when there is background noise, such as at a party or in a public place. Eventually, the hearing loss becomes a problem in all situations, even in quiet settings.

• Make suggestions. Give your child practical listening strategies that don’t force him or her to choose between ear health and iPod: Take regular breaks from listening to allow the ears to recover. Don’t turn it up so loud that someone else can hear the music from a few feet away. Keep the volume at 60 percent or lower. And use over-the-ear–style headphones, which don’t get as loud, instead of earbuds. By the way, if you’re a digital-music lover, you should be following the same guidelines.