May 6, 2019/Children's Health

Hear, Hear! How to Protect Your Child’s Ears From Sound-Induced Hearing Loss

Tips on kids’ headphones and sound-monitoring apps

Parent on couch in background while your girl listens to music via earbuds

Despite your best efforts, your kids are glued to their smartphones and tablets — and we bet you 10 bucks they have the volume cranked way too high.

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Sharon Sandridge, PhD, Director of Clinical Services in Audiology, explains why — and how — you should help kids listen safely.

Listen up

Hearing loss is common in older age. But it also happens to the young!

“Exposure to loud sounds causes one-third of all hearing loss — which means you can prevent it,” Dr. Sandridge says. “And the younger you start protecting hearing, the better.”

Loud sounds can damage hearing — but the amount of time you listen matters, too. We can safely listen to sounds at 85 decibels (dB) for up to eight hours a day, Dr. Sandridge says. That’s about the volume of city traffic. At max volume, smartphones and tablets can blare at 105 dB or more — a sound intensity that can damage ears in as little as five minutes. (Gulp.)

If you can hear sounds coming from your child’s earpiece when standing an arm’s length away, that’s a good clue it’s dangerously loud, Dr. Sandridge says.

Tech to the rescue: Sound-level meter apps

In general, it’s tough to judge decibel levels on your own. But, no surprise — there’s an app for that.

Sound level meter apps measure noise levels to help you (and your kids) stay in the safe zone.

Those tools can be great, Dr. Sandridge says — if they’re accurate. The apps aren’t regulated, so you can’t always assume they’re as good as they claim.

For an app you can trust, she recommends the NIOSH Sound Level Meter App, available (for free!) from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

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Choosing safe kids’ headphones

Keeping tabs on volume is the easier part. The next-to-impossible part? Getting kids to turn down the dial when it’s too loud. Choosing the right headphones can make that job less stressful.

Earbuds

“Kids tend to crank up the volume with earbuds because they want to hear it all over the ambient noise,” Dr. Sandridge says. “They run the risk of listening at a higher intensity.”

Plain old earbuds are small and portable. But standard earbuds aren’t very good at blocking out the sounds around us.

Isolating earbuds

Also called occluding earbuds, isolating earbuds form a tight seal inside the ear canal to block out the surrounding noise. When kids don’t have to tune out the sounds of traffic or teasing siblings, they can focus on Ariana Grande’s lyrics at a safe volume. (Just poke them when you want their attention.)

A word of caution: Occluding earbuds also reduce important warning sounds like car horns, so they’re not a good choice if your child listens to music outside.

Over-the-ear headphones

Young kids often find these more comfortable than earbuds. Many parents assume headphones are also safer since they don’t get as close to the eardrum.

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Not true, according to Dr. Sandridge.

Their larger size means they can deliver sounds at a higher volume. So, as with any headphones, you’ll still have to keep an eye on the dial.

Volume-limiting headphones

Both earbuds and over-the-ear headphones come in volume-limiting styles. These listening devices keep sound levels below the danger level, so they’re a great choice for kids who tend to crank up the volume (which is to say, almost all kids).

Safe listening is a parent’s job

Whatever you choose, it’s worth going to the trouble to make sure your kids’ ears are safe.

“Kids are fearless and they don’t think about hearing loss,” Dr. Sandridge says. “If you help them listen safely today, you’ll protect their hearing for tomorrow.”

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