A coming epidemic of hearing loss

Photo credit: Moose Photos

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

The C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital National Poll on Children’s Health asked a nation-wide sample of parents with children ages 5-12 about their children’s earbud and headphone use. Parents reported that 53% of children ages 5-8 and 79% of children ages 9-12 used earbuds or headphones. Headphone use varied widely, but 16% of parents said their children use headphones for more than two hours a day. Children used headphones at home, on the school bus and when traveling on airplanes. A small number even fell asleep with earbuds or headphones. Only half of polled parents tried to limit their child’s use of personal listening devices.

These survey results confirm what most observers already know: children start using personal listening devices early in life. My survey of the literature, published with my noise colleague Jan Mayes, shows that research in peer-reviewed scientific and medical journals documents auditory damage from personal listening device use in children as young as 9 years old. The survey didn’t ask parents about their teenagers’ device use, but almost all teens use headphones or earbuds several hours a day.

Published research doesn’t yet show increased hearing loss in children and teens. I think that’s because the studies use limited-range pure tone audiometry, which is an insensitive measure of auditory damage. And, it takes 30-40 years of noise exposure to damage hearing enough to become noticeable. I predict that in a matter of decades, there will be an epidemic of hearing loss among today’s children and teens.

I hope people remember that I tried to warn them about this problem starting in 2015. That’s when I became aware that headphones were being marketed as safe for children without a recommended use time, and used the industrial-strength 85 decibel volume limit. Looking for safe earbuds or headphones is like looking for a safe cigarette. You won’t find one.

Many thanks to Yishane Lee at Hearing Health Foundation for bringing this report to our attention.

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