Are we deafening our children?

Photo credit: M Pincus licesned under CC BY 2.0

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

This review of headphones designed for toddlers and children states that the headphones have “a toddler-safe 75 decibel maximum, a hearing-health friendly 85 decibel maximum, and a louder 94 decibel maximum in-flight mode.” The reviewer goes on to state, “[w]e highly recommend that parents set the volume no louder than the 85 decibel mode for optimal hearing safety.” These statements document a complete misunderstanding of the dangers of loud noise for hearing and of children’s health. These headphones may be safer for children’s hearing than headphones without volume limits, which can put out 100-110 decibels (dB), but they are certainly not safe for children’s hearing.

To my knowledge, there are no studies of noise exposure and hearing loss in children. But children are not small adults, and noise exposure standards derived from studies on adults cannot be applied to them.

The 85 dB standard for safe listening is derived from the 85 A-weighted (dbA)* recommended exposure level for occupational noise. It is not a safe noise exposure for the public. The only evidence-based safe noise exposure limit to prevent hearing loss is a time-weighted average of 70 decibels for a day, and even that is probably too much noise exposure to prevent noise-induced hearing loss.

Let me state my thoughts as clearly as I can: A-weighted decibels typically measure 5-7 decibels lower than unweighted decibels. The 85 dBA noise exposure standard does not protect all exposed workers from occupational hearing loss over a 40-year work career, even with provision of hearing protection devices, strict monitoring, time limits for exposure, and regular audiograms, backed up by OSHA inspections and workers compensation law. Noise loud enough to deafen factory workers or heavy equipment operators over a 40-year career just isn’t safe for a little toddler’s delicate ears, which must last a whole lifetime, into her or his 80s or 90s.

The World Health Organization recommends only one hour exposure to 85 dBA noise because one hour at 85 dBA averages out to 70 dB for the day, even if there is zero noise for the other 23 hours, which is impossible.

In 2018, I was able to get the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority to take action agains Amazon because it was falsely advertising that headphones using the 85 dB volume limit were safe for children’s hearing. The Federal Trade Commission’s Division of Advertising Practices has declined to take enforcement action here, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission declined a request to require warning labels about possible auditory damage on headphones and personal music players. And the American Association of Pediatrics has also declined to issue advice for parents about noise exposure as strong as its recommendations against sun exposure.

Am I falsely alarmed? I don’t think so. A Dutch study in 2018 showed that children age 9-11 who used headphones already had signs of auditory damage, compared to those who didn’t.

Besides, children should be talking with other children, or with parents, grandparents, and others, not listening to music or the soundtracks of their screen devices. A recent study showed that screen time is correlated with brain changes in the tracts involving speech.

My advice to parents: no headphones and limit screen time. Protect your children’s ears and talk to them about why.

*A-weighting adjusts noise measurements for the frequencies heard in human speech.

Dr. Daniel Fink is a leading noise activist based in the Los Angeles area. He is the founding chair of The Quiet Coalition, an organization of science, health, and legal professionals concerned about the impacts of noise on health, environment, learning, productivity, and quality of life in America. Dr Fink also is the interim chair of Quiet Communities’ Health Advisory Council, and he served on the board of the American Tinnitus Association from 2015-2018.

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