It’s a simple question, but the answer is a little more complicated. There’s a safe way and a not-so-safe way for kids (and adults too!) to listen to music.
And it’s an important distinction to make, because the World Health Organization estimates that 1.1 billion young people worldwide could be at risk of hearing loss due to unsafe listening practices.
Because hearing loss is often ‘silent’ and gradual, children don’t realize they’re hurting their ears until the damage is already done. And that injury is permanent. When this happens, the hair cells in the inner ear become damaged from loud noise and over time that translates into hearing loss.
So here’s a safer way for your child to listen to music:
- Follow the 60/60 rule. Have your child keep the volume on her personal audio device no louder than 60% of the max volume, and limit listening to 60 minutes at a time. The loudness of some MP3 players and phones go all the way up to 110 decibels (dB), which can cause damage depending on how long she’s listening at that level. And even at 60 dB, the ears need a break after being exposed to direct noise for longer than 60 minutes.
- Avoid background noise while listening. It’s a scenario I see all the time – a teen or adult mowing the lawn with earbuds in. This situation is a double whammy to the ears: a lawn mower produces about 106 dB of noise and the volume in the ear buds is most certainly turned up past 60% of the max to be able to hear it over the lawn mower. For reference, any sound 85 dB or higher is considered dangerous to hearing, depending on how long your child is exposed to it.
- Better yet, listen with headphones rather than earbuds. As popular as they are, earbuds are not the safest option for listening to music. Because the buds go into the ear canal, they are that much closer to the delicate hair cells and thus, more dangerous. Headphones that cover the entire ear can block outside noises and prevent the need to crank up the tunes.
But while we’re on the topic of hearing loss, what’s even more important than trading earbuds for headphones is looking at the entire day’s noise exposure. I like to think of noise exposure like some people look at daily caloric intake. Each day we all have an individualized amount of calories that our bodies should have. Daily noise exposure is similar. Our ears can be exposed to a certain level and amount of noise each day before it starts to cause damage.
For instance, if you know your teen is going to be hitting a concert later in the evening, you might want to suggest that he lower the volume and listen to it for the rest of the day on speakers rather than directly on his ears. (And take earplugs to the concert!)
The really exciting thing (for me, as an audiologist) is that we have a way to assess how much, if any, damage to the hair cells your child has received at this point. That means that if your child is particularly at risk for hearing loss (for instance, he plays the drums in the marching band), we can perform Otoacoustic Emissions testing (which evaluates inner ear function) to see if all that drum playing has hurt his hearing thus far. If it has, he probably needs to be wearing ear protection.
So going back to the original question, “Is listening with earbuds safe?” My answer is that it really depends on whether your child follows the safe listening guidelines above and what her overall noise exposure is for the whole day.
If your child passes the hearing screening at school but you’re still concerned, don’t hesitate to contact your child’s doctor because it is possible to pass the screening and still have hearing damage. Your child’s doctor may recommend further testing with audiology.