Earphone Safety: Tips to Reduce Risk of Ear Damage

How to Listen to Earphones Safely

girl listening to earbuds in car.

No matter where you go these days, people are using earphones.  They use them for communicating, listening to music, and blocking background noise.  They come in a variety of shapes and sizes — from those that completely cover the ears, to small earbuds and everything in-between. Some are quite pricey, while others aren’t. Regardless of the reason for use, style, or cost, one of the most common questions we get is whether earphones are safe for kids and teens to use. The answer is a definite maybe – when used safely.

Loud Sounds Can Cause Permanent Damage to Receptor Cells

Earphones by themselves are safe, however the volume at which kids listen to them are what can make them unsafe. The louder they set the volume, the greater the possibility that their ears will be damaged. Loud sounds can damage the delicate receptor cells in the inner ear.  Once damaged, these cells cannot be replaced and therefore any damage that occurs will be permanent. 

Any sound, regardless of type, that is too loud will be harmful to the ears.  Rock music is no more harmful than classical music, and video games are not inherently harmful even with gunfire and explosions. Some people claim that loud, low pitched sounds (low frequencies) are not as damaging as loud, high pitched sounds.  This is simply untrue.  Loud sounds, no matter the pitch, will cause hearing damage. 

Children Showing Initial Stages of Hearing Loss Due to “Noise Exposure”

These days we are seeing more and more children with the initial stages of hearing loss due to “noise exposure.”  In this case, “noise exposure” refers to any loud sound in our environment, including music and games.  It also includes the crowd sounds at football games, the fireworks on the Fourth of July, and traffic noise. 

We’ve all known people who lose their hearing as they get older.  One of the primary causes of this age-related hearing loss is not being old, but rather the exposure to loud sounds over the course of our lives.  Unfortunately that means that children who experience noise damage at early ages are getting a head start on age-related hearing loss!

Volume Settings And Length of Exposure Are Contributors to Hearing Loss

Many people, including children, do have their volume settings too high. This is particularly true for those earphones that allow external noise to be heard.  Whatever we are listening to, we all like it to be louder than the background noise in order to be both understood and enjoyable.

A good example is listening to the car radio while driving down the interstate. Upon exiting the highway and coming to a stop, we’ll realize that the radio is too loud.  But it wasn’t too loud for the last 100 miles of travel! 

Earphones that block external noise – those that completely cover the ears or that have noise cancelling properties – allow the user to listen at lower levels. Conversely, those that allow external noise into the ear, such as earbud-type earphones, will need to be turned up louder in order to hear. 

The length of time using earphones is also an important factor. There is a direct relationship between time of exposure to loud sounds and the potential for damage to the ears. The more earphones are used during a day, the more direct exposure to loud sounds is possible, and the more likely that damage to the ears will occur. 

So how can we guide our children to use earphones safely? Here are some key considerations for the use of earphones:

How To Listen to Earphones Safely:

  • Use different earphones for different activities and environments. Will they be used during exercise, for music, gaming, or while traveling on an airplane?  Earphones that fit over the ear are generally not good while exercising, and earbuds don’t block the noise of an airplane. But they may be okay in quieter environments, like at home.
  • Consider putting time limitations on their use by children, particularly if they tend to listen to loud sounds.
  • Consider purchasing earphones that have parental controls, such as volume limiting capabilities. For older children and adults, consider noise cancelling earphones that can block the background noise and therefore allow the volume to be set at lower levels.
  • Turn it to the left! If your child is using earphones, and you can hear the sounds as well, then the volume control is too high!  Turn those volume control dials to the left. 

Earphones can be safe when used properly, but unsafe when the volume is set too high. For those parents who have children that use earphones regularly, or who listen to any sound at loud levels, particularly if they do it for extended periods of time, then consider getting periodic hearing checks to determine if any damage is occurring. If you are concerned about your kids’ hearing, I recommend speaking with their doctor about it. He or she may make a referral to an audiologist for a hearing assessment. 

Our audiology department believes in early intervention and active collaboration with families and other clinicians to maximize your child’s communications abilities. To learn more, or to request an appointment, please call 513-636-4236.

 

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Ian Windmill, PhD

About the Author: Ian Windmill, PhD

Ian Windmill, PhD, is the director of Audiology at Cincinnati Children’s and a professor in the Department of Otolaryngology at the University of Cincinnati. He is a past president of the American Academy of Audiology

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Comments

  1. lawnboy20011 June 06, 11:01
    What about this scenario: loud riding lawn mower, earbuds at reasonable volume, and over-ear hearing protection on top of the earbuds?
    • Wendy Steuerwald, AuD June 08, 12:14
      Hi lawnboy20011, That’s a tough question to answer without knowing how loud your lawn mower is, how loud the music is, the amount of time you spend on the mower and the quality of the earphones. Noise cancelling phones may help reduce the mower noise and allow you to hear the music at a softer level, but we have a lot of unknown variables interacting with each other. The safest option would be for you to wear high quality ear protection, limit the amount of time using the mower, and not listen to music while cutting the grass. Hope this helps!