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Headphone and earbud safety Children's Wisconsin

Ear buds and headphones: Safe listening tips for kids and teens

Screen time has long been a concern for parents. While those fears mostly revolved around a lack of physical activity, social isolation or interference with a child’s sleep cycle, there is another, often overlooked, issue that parents should be aware of: hearing loss. 

When your kids are on a tablet or computer — playing a video game, watching a movie or going to school — in all likelihood they’re using headphones, either over-the-ear headphones or ear buds (which are essentially a pair of tiny speakers you wear inside your ears). And now with so many schools going virtual, the amount of time kids spend in front of a computer with their ears plugged into headphones is only increasing. 

Using headphones at loud volumes, so close to the eardrum, can cause hearing damage or loss. Hearing loss results from damage to structures and/or nerve fibers in the inner ear that respond to sound. Noise-induced hearing loss is usually caused by exposure to excessively loud sounds. Sadly, it cannot be corrected.

While there are many different causes of noise-induced hearing loss, the increased use of portable listening devices can’t be ignored. In fact, a study in the Journal of the American Medical Association showed that one in five teenagers have experienced some degree of hearing loss. 

Hearing damage is similar to sun damage — too much exposure over time can cause harm. As headphone use becomes more integrated into classrooms, learning environments and everyday life, it’s essential to take steps that can help prevent potential hearing damage in your kids. 

Here are some tips for safe listening:

  • Keep it down: I’ll start with the obvious. A good guideline to follow is keeping the volume to about half the maximum or quieter. If you can hear their music, video game or school instruction while they are using headphones, it’s too loud. Your child should be able to hear conversations going on around them, according to the American Association for Pediatrics. 

  • Take breaks: Like any part of your body, your ears can get tired, and any damage from noise is made worse with longer exposure. Think of the 60-60 rule: 60 percent volume for 60 minutes. This also can also help manage and control screen time.

  • Be an example: If children see you blaring your tunes, it’ll be tougher for them to want to keep the volume down. Also talk to your kids about proper listening volumes. Let them know about the 60-60 rule. 

Understanding loud sounds

Decibels (dB) above 85 can lead to hearing damage or loss in as soon as two hours or as little as two minutes. Here are a few examples of decibel levels of common sounds.

  • Students whispering: 20 dB

  • Refrigerator hum: 40 dB

  • Normal conversation: 60 dB

  • City traffic (inside the car): 80-85 dB

  • Max volume on headphones: 110 dB

  • Concert: 120 dB

  • Firecrackers: 140-150 dB

Signs to look for

Noise-induced hearing loss usually takes a while and the signs can be subtle. Signs may include: 

  • Ringing, buzzing, hissing or roaring in one or both ears after a hearing a loud noise

  • Muffling or distortion of sounds

If your child complains of this or any other ear pain, you should contact your child’s pediatrician. 

Your Children’s Wisconsin primary care provider offers hearing testing at annual well visits starting at age 4. We track your child’s hearing and look for any indication of hearing damage or loss. If we suspect your child has compromised hearing, we will recommend you see an audiologist. The audiologist will be able to administer a series of tests to determine how your child’s hearing has been affected.