Hearing loss has never been exclusively a problem of the elderly, but thanks to rapidly changing technology and more options among portable personal music players, it’s quickly becoming a growing problem among young people.
MP3 players and iPods are becoming more and more prevalent, not just at the gym or on the train but on the school bus, at the park and probably in your kids’ bedrooms.
"IPods and other MP3 players are safe if used properly," says Dr. Stuart A. Morgenstein, an otolaryngologist, attending physician at Children’s Memorial Hospital and Central DuPage Hospital and faculty member at Northwestern University’s School of Medicine.
Though they’re not inherently dangerous, that doesn’t mean they can’t—or don’t—do real damage.
With any such devices, hearing issues have to do with three things: volume/intensity of sound, length of time listening and type of headphones.
At full volume on an iPod, you’re listening to sound at 120 decibels (dB)—"the equivalent of a jet taking off," says Morgenstein. After just five minutes at that level, the potential for hearing loss sets in. For comparison, a lawnmower’s sound is around 85dB. "With anything above 80dB, you should use noise precautions," he says.
The recommendations for MP3 players is, for a duration of four to five hours, a sound level of 70 percent of the full volume; there are no time restrictions when you listen at 50 percent or less of the full volume.
The problem, especially with young people, is that full volume, or close to it, seems to be the preference.
While hearing loss can result from a huge variety of causes, more than 10 million Americans have noise-induced hearing loss.
And because hearing loss is often gradual, most people don’t notice it’s a problem until the loss is already significantly advanced.
To prevent hearing loss in your child, Morgenstein recommends a three-pronged approach: Education, research and restriction.
Educate both yourself and your children. Many kids suffer from safety denial, believing in their own invincibility when it comes to health and safety risk factors. Morgenstein stresses talking about hearing and making sure kids understand how real the risk of hearing loss is and "that when you do lose your hearing, it’s irreversible."
Next, do some research on headphones/earbuds. Because they sit inside the ear, up against the eardrum, earbuds can be extremely dangerous. At 80 percent volume, they can only be used for 90 minutes before there is potential for hearing loss. Child-safe earbuds keep the volume level below 80dB, no matter how loud the player is turned up.
Finally, he says, set a time limit on daily use for your children. "There is a time-exposure factor here," says Morgenstein.