Excessive Earphone Use May Harm Children's Hearing

Experts say young children who use earphones or other personal audio devices like earbuds are at risk for hearing issues, including tinnitus and hearing loss.

A new University of Michigan Health C.S. Mott Children's Hospital National Poll on Children's Health revealed that headphone use among young children is on the rise. And this increase has experts concerned about the potential risks to kid's hearing health.

The poll, conducted in August 2023, surveyed 1,152 parents in the United States with at least one child aged 5 to 12. The survey asked parents to report whether their children used earphones or earbuds, how long they used them, and whether they attempted to limit their kid's earphone use.

According to the Mott Poll Report, 79% of parents with children ages 9 to 12 and 53% with kids 5 to 8 years of age reported their child used earphones. Children primarily wore these personal auditory devices at home, school, or in the car.

Nearly half of parents surveyed said using earphones or earbuds helps keep their youngsters entertained.

Moreover, among parents who reported their child uses earphones, 16% said they use these devices for at least 2 hours, 24% for 1 to 2 hours, and 52% for less than an hour per day. However, 57% of parents surveyed indicated they try to limit their child's time wearing headphones by urging youngsters to take a break or setting time constraints on use.

What's more, 77% of parents said that headphone use is acceptable if the volume is kept at an appropriate level. Around 40% also report implementing volume-limiting or noise-canceling headphones to set volume limits.

Can headphones harm children's hearing?

The results of the Mott Poll show that earphone use among younger kids is growing. Because these devices are relatively new among this age group, not much is known about the long-term impacts on hearing.

According to the report, exposure to excessive noise can impact children's language development, learning, and sleep. Moreover, young children have smaller ear canals than adults, making them more vulnerable to noise damage.

A study published in 2021 suggests that teens who used earphones in a noisy environment had a 4.5 times higher risk of experiencing hearing loss and an 8.4 times greater risk of having a hearing problem than those who did not use these personal audio devices.

While loud noises above 120 decibels can cause immediate hearing damage, noises above 70 decibels can also harm hearing if it continues over a prolonged time.

In a press release, Susan Woolford, M.D., M.P.H., a Mott pediatrician and co-director of the Mott poll, noted there are several strategies parents can use to reduce noise exposure via earphone use. These include:

  • Check the sound level on listening devices to ensure they are less than 70 dBA (relative loudness of decibels heard), as noise-related damage is unlikely at these levels.
  • Consider noise-canceling headphones that can help prevent kids from increasing their volume levels.
  • Follow the 60/60 rule, where children are limited to no more than 60 minutes of earphone use per day at no more than 60% of the maximum volume.
  • Schedule device-free time daily and enforce this rule by putting away the child's earphones or earbuds when time limits are up.

According to Woolford, a parent can determine whether the volume on their child's audio device is too high by speaking to their child in a normal voice from a short distance away. If the child can't hear them, the volume is likely too loud and could harm hearing.

Woolford said that if a parent suspects their child is experiencing the early signs of hearing loss, such as delayed speech, speaking loudly to people close by, or lack of reaction to loud noises, they should seek advice from a pediatrician, audiologist, or an ear, nose, and throat (ENT) doctor.

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