How to Protect Kids’ Ears From Constant Headphone Use

Children glued to their headphones. It’s a familiar scene these days.

Lauren Breeze of Nashville finds her 15-year-old son, Declan, wearing headphones all day. “He has always been a big music fan, but this is new since we have been home in quarantine. It’s almost like he has to have a soundtrack to his life.”

Her attitude: Anything to make it through the day. “I haven’t tried to get him to stop, especially now that things are so different,” she said. “Before, he didn’t walk around the house like this.”

With more families squeezed together for longer periods of time during the coronavirus pandemic, there’s more of a need for one’s own listening space. But lengthy listening on headphones or earbuds can be harmful. And volume is only part of the equation.

It’s noise dose that is significant, or roughly the duration times the volume. As one increases, the other should decrease.

Without proper safety measures, children could end up with hearing loss, communication difficulties and distressing symptoms of ear-ringing, aural fullness, sensitivity and pain.

“We have done an atrocious job of teaching people to value their hearing,” said Brian Fligor, Ph.D., a pediatric audiologist in Boston.

Dana Dinerman of San Diego often reminds her 8-year-old son, Patrick, to keep his headphone volume low. (Her mother, a former aerobics instructor who taught classes to loud music, wears hearing aids.)

“People are more worried about social media, video games and screen time,” Dinerman said. “The doctor gives you a checklist: Does anybody smoke in the house? How much TV does he watch? What kind of food is he eating? But they never ask about headphones or volume or anything like that.”

She is also concerned about her 10-year-old nephew, who wears his headphones constantly while playing video games. The volume is so loud that, “if you ask him a question, he can’t hear,” she said.

With kids inclined to listen with headphones for longer periods of time these days, we asked some experts about safe listening habits.

Not necessarily. Children’s headphones are generally capped at 85 decibels, which helps. But there’s more to it.

“Treating 85 decibels as a safe level makes no sense at all,” said Rick Neitzel, Ph.D., an associate professor of environmental health sciences at the University of Michigan.

“Exposure is not just intensity — it is also how long it lasts and how frequently it occurs,” he said. “Ignoring the time is missing the point. This 85-decibel number has achieved mythical status not because it is safe but because it is one of the few ways that occupational noise is regulated.”

What’s more, some children’s headphones — the ones with volume limits touting their safety — are marketed as having comfortable ear pads and a long battery life, so children can rock all day long. “It is totally conflicting messaging,” Dr. Neitzel said.

Turning up a favorite song is fine. It’s constant exposure to much lower volumes that people don’t realize is so damaging.

There is no one-size-fits-all answer. If forced to put numbers on such a complex concept, a safe limit for most headphone users for an unlimited amount of listening is 70 decibels, said Drs. Neitzel and Fligor, who published a recent paper on recreational sound exposure.

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