Parenting with hearing loss is not easy. Every time I walk into my children’s rooms these days, they have earbuds in their ears. This may be typical for many teenagers, but not for mine. Pre-pandemic, I never let them use earbuds because of my genetic hearing loss. It started in my mid-20s and I worry that I may have passed it onto them. We won’t know until they are adults so I am adamant about protecting their hearing now. This way if problems develop, their baseline will be as strong as possible. Hence, no earbuds.
But Covid-19 changed all this. I had no choice but to relent and now I am worried. With virtual school, virtual entertainment, and virtual socializing, they are wearing their earbuds 8-10 hours a day, if not more! I check the volume religiously — thank goodness they seem to set it very low — but I worry about the impact all this earbud wearing will have on their hearing longer term.
Noise-Induced Hearing Loss is Permanent
When people think of noise-induced hearing loss, they most often think of exposure to loud sounds like sirens, concerts or jackhammering, but extensive earbud use, particularly at high volume, is another common way to damage hearing.
According to It’s a Noisy Planet, a website operated by the National Institutes of Health, the extent of hearing damage caused by noise depends on three things:
- How loud the sound is.
- How close you are to the source of the sound.
- The length of time you are exposed to the sound.
The Louder the Sound, The More Damage It Does
The louder the sound, the more damage it can do to your hearing. My children set the volume at a low level because they are aware of the dangers of noise-induced hearing. This is because I have drilled it into them their whole life, but other teens who don’t have parents with hearing loss, may be less aware of the potential issues.
As a rule of thumb, sounds at or below 70 decibels (dB) are considered safe. Extended exposure to any sound at 85 dB or greater can damage hearing. Unfortunately, most earbuds do not limit the maximum sound output. It is up to the user to make safe choices for their hearing. Without education about the risks, many teens may be playing music or streaming videos at unsafe levels.
Closer Sounds are Higher Risk for Hearing Damage
Moving away from loud sounds is a quick and easy way to protect your hearing because sounds get quieter as you move farther away from them. Earbuds, worn in the ear, bring the sound very close to the delicate inner ear hair cells that drive hearing. While birds and fish can regenerate these hair cells when they are damaged, mammals cannot. For humans, hearing damage caused by repeated exposure to loud noise is permanent.
The Length of Sound Exposure Impacts Hearing Health
The impact of noise exposure is cumulative meaning regular exposure to unsafe sounds increases the risk of hearing damage. Sounds below 70 dB are usually considered safe, even with extended exposure, but at higher volumes, long hours of earbud usage can take a toll.
According to It’s a Noisy Planet, sounds are more likely to damage hearing if they are:
- 85 dBA and last a few hours.
- 100 dBA and last at least 14 minutes.
- 110 dBA and last at least 2 minutes.
How To Keep Children Safe from Extended Earbud Use
What can we do to protect our children’s hearing in this age of perpetual video conference calls? It is a challenge, but there are several safety steps we can take.
1. Monitor the volume.
This factor is the most easily controlled. If your teens’ devices have volume maximum limits, use them. If not, periodically check the volume at which they are listening to make sure it is safe. Keep the surrounding environment as quiet as possible so they don’t need to raise the volume to combat external noise and explain the risks of permanent hearing damage so they know the consequences of unsafe listening.
2. Institute forced breaks.
Meal times and other social family time are obvious times to remove the earbuds and interact with other human beings in real space. During independent homework time, institute a policy of no earbuds for at least some portion of the time.
3. Mix it up with alternative listening devices.
Mandate that over the ear headphones or the computer speakers are used for sound for portions of the day. While using the computer speakers may be challenging if you have multiple teens taking virtual classes simultaneously, not to mention parents at home working virtually too, it may be possible during homework time or when streaming for recreational use.
The pandemic has changed normal patterns for learning, working and socializing that can put our hearing and our children’s hearing at risk. Knowing the facts and taking steps to minimize unsafe noise exposure can help mitigate the chances of permanent hearing damage.
Readers, are you worried about increased earbud usage during the pandemic?