Many parents have gotten lax with screen time during the pandemic, and understandably so. Most experts agree that some extra screen time right now isn’t going to do permanent damage to our kids — as long as we dial it back again when normal life resumes. But one thing that could damage them long-term is the overuse of headphones or ear buds. Hearing loss can happen slowly and subtly over time — by the time you realise it’s a problem, it’s too late.
Consider the volume and duration
The first, most obvious thing to consider when determining whether your child is using headphones in a way that may permanently damage their hearing is how loud the volume is. In general, 85 decibels is considered about the loudest volume that is safe to hear for a limited amount of time. I’ve seen the 85 decibels level described as the volume of heavy city traffic or a gas-powered lawn mower.
But according to the U.S. Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, anything over 70 decibels — like the level of noise a typical washing machine or dishwasher would make — over a prolonged period of time can be damaging. And at maximum volume, most smartphones, tablets and other personal listening devices can reach 105-110 decibels, which the CDC says can cause hearing loss in fewer than five minutes.
As a general rule, as either volume or duration go up, the other should go down. And remember that noise is cumulative — it’s not just about how loud they’re listening to music but also what they’re hearing over the course of a day. Joyce Cohen explains in the New York Times:
If a headphone-loving child also practices the drums, mows the lawn or bangs on pots and pans every night at 7, the day’s noise dose soars. (For those activities, experts advise protective earmuffs. Earplugs can work for older children, but they are not especially user-friendly and they pose a choking hazard for young ones.)
Consider the type of headphones
Not all headphones are created equal when it comes to volume and safety. Your best bet is to get your kids some children’s headphones, which typically cap the decibel limit at 85, compared with regular headphones that might go as high as 110. Even so, they shouldn’t have it at full blast, particularly if they’re going to be listening for any extended amount of time.
Another (more expensive) option is noise-cancelling headphones, which eliminate background noise, making it easier for a child to hear what they’re listening to without needing to raise the volume too high. But because they are so good at eliminating background noise, you have to be careful about when they use them. During a car ride is fine, for example, but not when they’re walking or biking somewhere and need to be able to hear things like people yelling or cars honking.
How to know when the volume is too high
It’s hard to gauge whether a volume is 7o decibels or 75 or is creeping toward the more dangerous 85. If you really want to be sure they’re listening at a safe volume, Dr. Sharon Sandridge, director of clinical services in audiology at the Cleveland Clinic, recommends using the NIOSH Sound Level Metre App to measure it. That app is only available on iOS, but there are similar apps that are available for both iOS and Android. Sandridge cautions on the clinic’s website, however, that these apps are not regulated, so you can’t always assume they are as good or as accurate as they claim.
In addition to (or in lieu of) an app, test whether the headphone volume is too loud by talking to your child in a normal speaking voice at an arm’s length away. If they can’t hear you, it’s too loud. And if you can hear sound coming from their headphones at that distance, it’s definitely too loud. You can also take a listen yourself, but be sure you’re checking in often to make sure they don’t blast it as soon as you walk away.
Look for warning signs of early hearing loss
Dr. Brian Fligor, a pediatric audiologist in Boston, tells the Times you may notice your child saying, “what?” too often if there is a hearing problem (and not just because they’re tuning you, specifically, out). In addition, he says any ear symptoms, including ringing, muffling, fullness, fluttering, thumping, sensitivity, distortion or pain — even if temporary — should be taken seriously.
“They mean you have had a warning shot to your hearing,” Dr. Fligor said. “Hearing can be taken away fairly easily, and there is no fix for that.”
Fligor says parents should have their child’s hearing tested at least every three years to catch any problems.