How to Prevent Hearing Loss in Children From Using Headphones

Many parents lost time in front of the screen during the pandemic, and this is understandable. Most experts agree that the extra screen time right now will not do irreparable harm to our children if we bring it back when normal life resumes. But one thing that can hurt them in the long run is overuse of headphones or earbuds. Hearing loss can be slow and unnoticeable over time – by the time you realize it is a problem, it will be too late.

Consider volume and duration

The first and most obvious thing to consider when determining whether your child is using headphones in a way that could permanently damage their hearing is the volume level. In general, 85 decibels is considered the maximum loudness that can be heard safely for a limited time. I’ve seen 85 decibels, described as city traffic or lawn mowers.

But according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention , anything above 70 decibels – like the noise level of a regular washing machine or dishwasher – can be dangerous for an extended period of time. And at maximum volume, most smartphones, tablets and other personal listening devices can reach 105-110 decibels, which the CDC claims can cause hearing loss in less than five minutes.

Generally, as the volume or duration increases, the other should decrease. And remember that noise builds up – it’s not just how loud they listen to music, but what they hear during the day. Joyce Cohen explains in the New York Times :

If a child who loves headphones also plays drums, mows the lawn, or knocks on pots and pans every night at 7, the day’s noise dose increases dramatically. (Experts advise using ear protectors for these activities. Earplugs may work for older children, but they are not particularly comfortable to use and pose a choking hazard for the little ones.)

Consider the type of headphones

Not all headphones are created equal in terms of volume and safety. It is best to get your kids with baby headphones, which usually cap the decibel limit at 85, compared to regular headphones, which can go up to 110. Even so, they shouldn’t have it at full power, especially if they’re going to listen for long time.

Another (more expensive) option is noise canceling headphones, which eliminate background noise, allowing your child to hear what they are listening to without having to turn up the volume too much. But since they eliminate background noise so well, you have to be careful when using them. For example, while driving in a car, this is fine, but not when they are walking or cycling and need to hear things like people screaming or car horns.

How to know when the volume is too high

It is difficult to tell if the volume is 7o decibels or 75 or near the more dangerous 85. If you really want to make sure they are listening at a safe volume, Dr. Sharon Sandridge, Director of Clinical Audiology Services at the Cleveland Clinic recommends using the NIOSH Sound Level Meter App to measure it. This app is only available for iOS, but there are similar apps available for both iOS and Android. However, Sandridge warns on the clinic’s website that these apps are unregulated, so you can’t always assume they’re as good or accurate as they claim.

In addition to (or instead of) the app, check if the volume on the headphones is too loud by talking to your child in a normal voice at arm’s length. If they can’t hear you, then it’s too loud. And if you can hear sound from the headphones at that distance, it is definitely too loud. You can listen to yourself as well, but make sure you check often to make sure they don’t blow it up once you leave.

Look for warning signs of early hearing loss

Dr. Brian Fleegore, a pediatric audiologist based in Boston, told the Times that you might have noticed your child asking, “What?” too often, if there is a hearing problem (and not just because they have, in particular, turned off). In addition, he says that any ear symptoms, including ringing, muffledness, fullness, flutter, thumping, tenderness, distortion, or pain, even if temporary, should be taken seriously.

“They mean that you have been fired a warning shot at your ear,” said Dr. Fligor. “Hearing can be lost quite easily and there’s nothing you can do about it.”

Fligor says parents should test their child’s hearing at least every three years to identify any problems.

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