Safe Personal Listening for Children

Personal listening with earbuds or headphones is very risky for children. New science shows children’s brain’s don’t develop normally if they are exposed to chronic low to moderate volume noise from a young age. The critical quiet period for normal brain growth and connections is from birth to about age 12. Many children start personal listening using headphones around age 3. Scientists don’t know yet what effect personal listening from a young age will have on brain development. So parents and care providers beware.

Aside from brain development, loud listening volume puts children at serious risk of hearing health damage. Research shows personal listening related hearing loss and tinnitus is showing up in children as young as 9. Risk is highest for children with 5 or more years of personal listening. Hearing health problems like decreased sound tolerance or distorted music and speech sounds can develop in less than 5 years even when hearing thresholds are within normal limits. Preventable early-onset hearing health damage can seriously impact children’s education, music appreciation, social interactions, work opportunities, and later quality of life.

Personal listening hearing conservation guidelines for children include:

  • No personal listening under age 13.
  • If that is not possible, limit personal listening under age 13, e.g. 1 hour per day. The majority of their everyday life, children should not be “plugged in.” Natural sound flowing down open unblocked ear canals is what our ears, hearing systems, and brains were designed for.
  • Keep usual listening volume at 25% or lower; this is a comfortable volume for most people.
  • Limit listening volume even if maximum internal device volume is limited or locked under settings.
  • Limit listening volume even if choosing loudness limiting headphones. thewirecutter.com did a scientific study on 50 models of loudness limiting headphones for kids. Most had such poor audio quality they weren’t worth testing. 50% of loudness limiting headphones advertised as safe for kids did not safely limit volume (<70 dB average). Of the rest, design flaws let kids easily bypass loudness limit settings. The Journal of the American Pediatric Association declined to publish a paper on hearing loss risk in children from personal listening headphones that don’t safely limit loudness as claimed by manufacturers. The US Federal Trade Commission Division of Advertising Practices said they won’t address false advertising in kid’s headphones.
  • Never let children listen above 50% volume no matter what headphones are used.

I used these guidelines for my children. I would be stricter now about limiting or waiting on personal listening until they were 13 after critical quiet brain development. Based only on the risk of noise-induced damage, my kids had to wait until they were 10 to 12 years old before I let them use personal listening devices. I thought that was old enough to be responsible for their hearing health. They limited how much time they spent personal listening daily. They knew over 50% volume was dangerous. We set-up devices together including any internal limits. After they started personal listening, I regularly checked in on their listening volume to make sure they were keeping it close to 25%. Now that they’re older, they spend much more time personal listening during their daily activities. But they still use the safe listening volumes they learned when they were young.

Photo by Ben Wicks on Unsplash.

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