Ear buds and earphones are everywhere — and may even seem physically attached to some teens. While these little sonic feeding tubes can fill us with music, they can also cause hearing damage. Here’s how to minimize the risk.
Cleveland Clinic is a non-profit academic medical center. Advertising on our site helps support our mission. We do not endorse non-Cleveland Clinic products or services. Policy
With a little effort, you can find models that do a better job of canceling outside noise so they don’t need to be cranked up – or products that restrict their output to safe levels, which can be especially helpful for kids.
Balance volume, length of listening
Volume level and length of listening are important to safely use different types of headphones, according to Sharon A. Sandridge, PhD, Director of Clinical Services in Audiology at Cleveland Clinic. She says there should be a balance.
“Eighty percent volume for a maximum of 90 minutes is the general rule of thumb,” says Dr. Sandridge.
“It really is an inverse relationship between how long and how loud. If you are listening for an amount of time longer than 90 minutes, volume should be reduced so that the longer you listen, the lower the volume.”
Another common practice is to observe the 60/60 rule: Listen at 60 percent volume for about an hour at a time and then give your ears a break.
3 types of listening devices
Besides volume and length of listening, there is also the choice of listening device to consider. There are three types of listening devices, each with their own design, benefits and drawbacks.
- Over-the-ear headphones encase the ear and are often better at canceling outside noise.
Pros and cons:
- Better sound quality allows for a lower volume
- Not as small and portable as ear buds
- Ear buds are much more portable.
Pros and cons:
- Good where physical safety is a concern (near traffic)
- Do not entirely block outside noise
- People tend to increase volume to dangerous levels in environments with a lot of ambient noise
- Isolating ear buds are better at blocking outside sounds, but can be dangerous for runners or cyclists.
Pros and cons:
- Rubber tips seal ear canal so outside sound is reduced
- Users are more likely to keep volume at a safe level
- Can prevent users from hearing warnings or traffic sounds around them
No matter the design you choose, Dr. Sandridge says people shouldn’t be afraid to spend a little extra for better ear pieces.
“Higher quality headphones or ear buds provide a higher fidelity sound so you are less likely to rely on the volume to enhance the fidelity,” Dr. Sandridge says.
Teens and hearing loss
Dr. Sandridge says the big problem is that many devices allow outputs to go much further than 85 dBs and listeners, especially younger listeners, don’t realize the long-term damaging effects.
“Twelve to 15 percent of teenagers have hearing loss to some degree,” says Dr. Sandridge. “Early exposure to noise results in inner ear damage which is permanent damage and may not be experienced until later on – when it is too late to prevent it.
“Damaging noise ages the ear 50 percent faster. So, by the time you are in your 50s, you may have the hearing of someone who is in their 80s, for example.”
Noise-induced hearing loss is not just a risk for teens. According to the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), fifteen percent of Americans between the ages of 20 and 69 (26 million Americans) have hearing loss that may have been caused by exposure to loud noise (at or above 85 decibels (dBs) during work or leisure activities, according to the National Institute on Deafness and other Communication Disorders.
Despite this, most people don’t realize that noise-induced hearing loss is 100 percent preventable.
Hearing Loss Prevention
Did You Hear That?
Baby, Can You Hear Me? (Video)