March 28, 2012

Children’s Hospital offers headphone safety tips to prevent long-term hearing loss

(Vanderbilt University)

With the proliferation of smart phones, portable gaming systems and media players, more children – especially teenagers – are listening to ear buds and headphones at dangerously high volume levels. The Monroe Carell Jr. Children’s Hospital at Vanderbilt is offering tips to parents and teenagers to help prevent long-term hearing loss.

According to a Vanderbilt-led study published in Journal of the American Medical Association, hearing loss is now affecting 20 percent of U.S. adolescents ages 12 to 19, which is a 5 percent increase over the past 15 years.

A separate study by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association found that teenagers typically listen to devices at a louder volume than adults and that these same teenagers already have symptoms of hearing loss.

Kristina Rigsby, a pediatric audiologist at the Vanderbilt Bill Wilkerson Center, said listening to devices with levels greater than 80 decibels for extended periods of time may be potentially dangerous. Prolonged exposure to high volume exhausts the auditory system, she explained. Over time, the hair cells in the ear start to degenerate because they aren’t receiving proper blood flow and oxygen.

“When you are listening to these devices at high levels and for long periods of time, you are putting yourself at risk for hearing loss,” Rigsby said. “Hearing loss is permanent, so once you’ve done the damage, there’s no getting it back.”

If parents can hear sound coming from their child’s headphones while they are wearing them, it’s too loud, Rigsby said. A good rule of thumb is the “60/60 rule,” which means using only 60 percent of the device’s volume level for no more than 60 minutes at a time. After 60 minutes, give your ears a break for at least an hour, she said.

Other suggestions include:

  • Investing in high-quality, “noise cancelling” headphones that cover the entire ear. Ear buds allow more background noise to seep in, so children often turn up the volume to compensate.
  • Using hearing protection, such as custom-made ear plugs. These can be used while playing music, attending concerts or in other loud environments such as movie theaters and firework shows.
  • Setting volume restrictions on your child’s personal electronic devices.