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Hidden health risks of headphones and earbuds in children

In a world where technology has become an integral part of our daily lives, the increasing use of headphones and earbuds among children has raised concerns about potential health risks. 

A national poll from the University of Michigan Health C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital sheds light on a troubling trend: a significant number of young children, specifically those aged 5-12, are frequently using personal listening devices.

Extensive use among younger children 

This phenomenon is not just confined to teenagers, as traditionally thought, but has extended to even younger demographics, with two in three parents acknowledging their child’s engagement with such devices.

Overall, half of the parents of children aged 5-8 reported that their elementary-aged kids use a device. Furthermore, among those children who use headphones and earbuds, half spend at least an hour a day with them, and one in six indulge in at least two hours of daily usage. 

Excessive noise exposure 

The extensive use of audio devices has prompted experts to voice concerns over the potential harm from excessive noise exposure, which has traditionally been associated with singular loud events like concerts or fireworks.

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

“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. It may be difficult to know whether their child’s exposure to noise is healthy.”

According to the survey, children are most likely to use these devices at home, school, and in the car. On the other hand, less than 10% of parents reported usage on the bus, outside, or in bed.

Long-term health risks

The American Academy of Pediatrics, recognizing the growing evidence of increased noise exposure risk through personal listening devices, issued a statement in 2023 emphasizing the need to mitigate these risks for children and teens. 

Dr. Woolford said that prolonged or extreme exposure to high volumes of noise can result in long term health issues, including hearing loss or tinnitus.

“Young children are more vulnerable to potential harm from noise exposure because their auditory systems are still developing. Their ear canals are also smaller than adults, intensifying perceived sound levels,” explained Dr. Woolford.

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

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

Setting time and volume limits

Despite the prevalent usage, only half of the parents have attempted to limit their child’s audio device usage, employing strategies such as designated break times, set hours for use, and timers. Interestingly, parents whose children use headphones for more than two hours a day are less likely to set time or volume limits.

To combat the risks associated with noise exposure through headphones and earbuds, Dr. Woolford offers practical advice to parents. She advocates for the 60/60 rule, limiting children to no more than 60 minutes of audio device usage a day at no more than 60% of the maximum volume. 

Further recommendations 

“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,” she said.

Furthermore, Dr. Woolford recommends noise-cancelling or volume-limiting headphones, ensuring children take breaks from personal listening devices, and being vigilant for early signs of hearing loss.

On the other hand, children should avoid using noise-cancelling listening devices in situations when perception of sounds is crucial for safety.

“Noise-cancelling devices may help prevent children from increasing the volume to levels that are too high,” said Dr. Woolford. “But these devices shouldn’t be used when a child is engaged in activities where it’s important to hear their surroundings for their safety, such as walking or bike riding.”

Parents should help children intentionally have daily “device-free” time, said Dr. Woolford. This may involve putting away or locking the child’s audio devices when time limits are up.

Early signs of hearing loss 

She also noted that if parents feel their child may be at risk of hearing loss due to using audio devices, they should check with a pediatrician, an audiologist, or an ENT (ear, nose and throat) specialist.

“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.”

“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.”

The full report from the University of Michigan survey is available here

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