Can we protect kids using headphones?

Photo credit: Pixabay

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

“How best to protect kids wearing headphones from noise-induced hearing loss.” That’s the title of this report from ABC News* in Australia. 

The story discusses ways to minimize the risk of auditory damage when children use headphones. The advice is all good, including citing the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s 70-decibel safe noise limit. However, the reality is that all headphones are potentially dangerous for auditory health, for all who use them. It is possible to listen safely using headphones in a quiet environment, but not to overcome ambient noise when walking down the street or using public transit. In these settings, the sound output has to be raised to dangerous levels to overcome other noise. As I have often said, looking for safe headphones is like looking for a safe cigarette: You won’t find one!

Researchers followed children age 9-11 in the Netherlands, as part of a longitudinal study of child development. They found that those using personal listening devices had more auditory damage than those not using these devices. A study in Belgium found tinnitus — or ringing in the ears — in over 90% of high school juniors, almost all of whom used personal listening devices. Tinnitus is an early sign of auditory damage, and about 90% of those diagnosed with tinnitus also have hearing loss.

One of the issues is that parents or other caregivers have no idea how loud headphone sound output really is. Even if they check the sound level before the child starts listening, the child can change it. Maybe that works for toddlers (children start using these devices as early as 2 or 3) but reports indicate that any child old enough to be in school or online can quickly figure out how to outsmart parental controls.

I can’t comment on the use of audio-visual instruction in schools, but I do have thoughts about using TV or phone screens as babysitters. I think using video players to amuse children in restaurants or airplanes minimizes parental contact and communication with children.

Children got along just fine before they became reliant on personal audiovisual entertainment. My wife and I talked with our children on long car rides, discussing what we saw as we drove along. When they were older, we simply talked. We played with them or told them stories in restaurants, and read them books on airplanes. A modest bribe of a new toy or book kept them amused for a while. Snacks helped, and there was always paper and crayons. When they got older and were able to read, books helped pass the time.

So that’s my sage advice on how best to protect kids using headphones from auditory damage. Just don’t let them use the headphones at all!

*ABC News is the Australia Broadcasting Corporation, not the ABC we’re used to here in the United States. 

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