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(Rockville, MD) State-of-the art earbuds and headphones have been a holiday gift list staple for years, but even more—and even younger—children may be receiving them this season as they increasingly rely on the listening accessories for distance learning and entertainment at home. With the vast uptick in the time spent using earbuds and headphones, hearing protection for children is critical, according to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA).
Noise-induced hearing loss, or NIHL, can occur when a person listens to technology devices for too long, at too-loud levels (duration + volume). Earbuds and headphones heighten the risk by feeding sound directly into a person’s ear. Sounds that measure 75 decibels or higher are considered dangerous to children’s hearing after 8 hours of listening time—and even most children’s headphones exceed that volume.
More than 1 billion young people worldwide are at risk of NIHL due to unsafe listening, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). Although NIHL is completely preventable, once it occurs, it is irreversible. If you are shopping for earbuds or headphones this holiday season, consider these options to help protect your child’s hearing:
- Noise-canceling capabilities. Noise-canceling earbuds and headphones can help drown out external noise, which reduces the need for kids and adults to crank the volume.
- Proper fit. A well-fitting set of earbuds and headphones can help prevent sound leakage, which can make volume increases unnecessary. Look for age-appropriate options.
- Volume-limiting products. Headphones with volume limiters may help provide some protection by capping the maximum output. These are often marketed to parents as “kid-safe.” But parents should know that many of these products still exceed the WHO’s safe listening standard for listening devices—and independent testing has shown that some products even surpass their claimed maximum volume. Check reputable product review sites—and listen yourself.
Good listening habits start early. Parents can help kids protect their hearing by:
- Encouraging listening breaks. If kids are engaged in virtual learning, strive for breaks between classes, if possible. Ears will benefit from the rest: Even a few minutes can make a big difference. When using earbuds and headphones for recreational purposes—such as listening to music, playing video games, or watching videos—take a break every hour. Schedule longer quiet breaks right after virtual school or other long stretches of usage.
- Teaching kids to be volume aware. If you find yourself constantly asking your child to “turn it down,” try being more specific: A good general rule of thumb is to keep the volume at half level. Kids should also learn to stay vigilant about loud noise. They may need to adjust their volume at times throughout the day. Just as commercials come in louder than a TV show you’re watching, a teacher may be toggling between their own instruction and educational videos or recorded lessons—which may come in much louder than their speaking voice.
- Helping kids appreciate their hearing. Have a conversation about why it’s important that kids listen safely. Do they want to continue enjoying their music, shows, and conversation with friends for years to come? By taking some simple steps, they can.
- Using parental controls. Beyond volume-limiting headphones, many tablets and other devices have built-in controls to allow parents to control the maximum volume. Various apps can also serve that purpose. You can find step-by-step instructions by searching online for your specific device and/or operating system (usually within the “Settings” section).
- Learning the signs of hearing loss. The signs of hearing damage can be subtle, especially considering NIHL is often cumulative—occurring in small increments over time. Compounding this situation is the fact that, due to the pandemic, some children may be missing routine hearing screenings in schools or at regular doctor’s appointments. Signs to watch for include difficulty hearing soft or faint sounds, ringing in the ears, or ear discomfort.
If you have concerns about your child’s hearing, contact a certified audiologist for a hearing evaluation. A searchable database of these providers nationwide can be found at www.asha.org/profind, or you can ask your pediatrician or doctor for a recommendation.
About the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA)
ASHA is the national professional, scientific, and credentialing association for 211,000 members and affiliates who are audiologists; speech-language pathologists; speech, language, and hearing scientists; audiology and speech-language pathology support personnel; and students. Audiologists specialize in preventing and assessing hearing and balance disorders as well as providing audiologic treatment, including hearing aids. Speech-language pathologists identify, assess, and treat speech and language problems, including swallowing disorders.