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Earbuds, headphones linked to hearing damage among kids

By Dennis Thompson, HealthDay News
Two-thirds of parents say that their child between the ages of 5 and 12 regularly pop listening devices in their ears, according to a new poll. Photo by Adobe Stock/HealthDay News
Two-thirds of parents say that their child between the ages of 5 and 12 regularly pop listening devices in their ears, according to a new poll. Photo by Adobe Stock/HealthDay News

Many younger children could be permanently damaging their hearing by blasting loud music on their earbuds and headphones, a new report finds.

Two in three parents say that their child between the ages of 5 and 12 regularly pop listening devices in their ears, according to the University of Michigan Health C.S. Mott Children's Hospital National Poll on Children's Health.

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That includes half of children ages 5 to 8, which is a perilously early age to expose ears to extended bouts of loud noise, health experts say.

"Over recent years, we've mostly been concerned about teens overusing audio devices," said Dr. Susan Woolford, a pediatrician at the University of Michigan and co-director of the Mott poll. "But earbuds have become increasingly popular and prevalent among younger kids, exposing them to more intense noise on a regular basis."

"Young children are more vulnerable to potential harm from noise exposure because their auditory systems are still developing," Woolford added in a university news release. "Their ear canals are also smaller than adults, intensifying perceived sound levels."

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Half of parents whose children use listening devices say their kids spend at least an hour a day with them, while one in six say a typical day includes at least two hours of use, poll results show.

Children are most likely to use the devices at home or school, or while riding in a car, the survey found. A quarter of parents say their kids occasionally use them on an airplane, and less than 10% say kids use them on the bus, outdoors or in bed.

Half of parents agree that headphones or earbuds help keep their kids entertained or preoccupied.

The concern has grown to the point that the American Academy of Pediatrics released a statement last year on the need to reduce noise exposure in children, including the use of listening devices.

Prolonged or extreme exposure to high volumes of noise can result in hearing loss or tinnitus, which is constant ringing in the ears, Woolford said.

"Noise exposure risks to young children have historically involved loud singular events like concerts or fireworks, but parents may underestimate the potential harm from excessive use of listening devices," Woolford said. "It may be difficult to know whether their child's exposure to noise is healthy."

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"Tiny hair cells inside the inner ear pick up sound waves to help you hear," Woolford explained. "When these get damaged or die, hearing loss is irreversible."

Noise exposure among children also can affect their sleep, academic learning, stress levels and even blood pressure, Woolford added.

Only half of parents said they've tried to limit their children's use of listening devices by asking them to take a break, setting specific hours for use or using a timer, the poll found.

Further, parents of kids who use headphones more than two hours a day are less likely to set time or volume limits, compared to parents who report less use.

Parents can reduce the risks of noise exposure to their kids by employing several strategies, Woolford said.

First and foremost, they should monitor the volume levels on the devices.

"A good way to tell if an audio device is too loud is if a child wearing headphones can't hear you when you're an arm's length away," Woolford said.

Woolford recommends parents follow the "60/60" rule -- no more than 60 minutes a day with earbuds or headphones, at no more than 60% of the maximum volume.

Parents also can consider the risk of noise exposure when buying one of these devices for their kid, Woolford said. Listening devices that emit less than 70 decibels (dBA) are very unlikely to cause noise-related damage.

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Check the product information on devices, and choose those that limit the volume, Woolford said.

But don't necessarily trust products marketed as "kid-safe," since some don't limit their volume to 70 decibels, Woolford said.

"Device-free time" each day also can help kids take a break from their headphones and earbuds. Parents should consider putting away or locking their child's audio devices when time limits are up, Woolford said.

Parents might also encourage kids to enjoy music playing at a low volume in their rooms, rather than using earbuds, Woolford said.

If parents are concerned about their child's hearing, they should have it checked with a pediatrician, an audiologist or an ear-nose-throat specialist, Woolford said.

"Early signs of hearing loss may include asking for repetition, hearing ringing noises often, speaking loudly to people nearby, delayed speech or lack of reaction to loud noises," Woolford said. "Healthcare providers may be of assistance to parents by offering a simple explanation about hearing loss to help the child understand the reasons for limiting their use of audio devices."

More information

The Nemours Foundation has more on earbuds and hearing loss.

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