Headphones used in schools are too loud

Photo credit: Sound On from Pexels

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

The New York Times’ Wirecutter published an article about headphones used in schools. Wirecutter evaluates products independently but does get commissions if products mentioned are purchased through links in its articles.

The article makes several important points about noise and hearing, although it still implies that headphone use at 85 A-weighted decibels* (dBA) is safe for one hour, which may not be true for children. That number is derived from the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health occupational noise exposure standards, which cannot be applied to vulnerable populations such as children. One hour at 85 dBA provides the maximum safe noise exposure for 24 hours, an average of 70 decibels for the day, so any additional noise exposure risks auditory damage. I wrote about safe noise levels in the American Journal of Public Health and this topic was also reviewed in a NIOSH Science Blog post.

Noise-induced hearing loss is a growing problem among young people, with the World Health Organization estimating that 1.1 billion people age 12-35 are at risk.

The use of digital media in education is on the rise. Obviously, it would be too noisy and distracting if all the students in a classroom didn’t use headphones to watch the instructional videos. Wirecutter reports that the school headphone market is large, with one company reporting sales of 2.7 million headphones to more than 10,000 schools across the U.S.

Not surprisingly, Wirecutter found that many of the headphones produced higher sound output levels than it considers safe, but it also queried parents and children who reported only short-term use of digital media in school, and not every day.

So maybe these headphones aren’t a significant problem, but since noise-induced hearing loss is permanent, school boards purchasing headphones should insist on safer volume-limited headphones for classroom use.

That’s what Wirecutter recommends, and we do, too.

*A-weighting adjusts sound measurements for the frequencies heard in human speech.

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