Music plays a big role in most people’s childhoods. Who can forget the song that was playing when they had their first kiss, or first breakup, or first sugar-fueled dance-off? But, having a constant soundtrack can have an unintended effect on children’s hearing, according to a study from Rotterdam University.
The researchers examined the hearing of the children, who were aged 9 to 11, and also measured how often they used a portable music player (eg. an iPod).
1 in 7 children had some measurable hearing loss.
But, children who reported using portable music players on a regular basis (more than once a week) were nearly three times more likely to have hearing loss than children who didn’t use music players regularly.
The main problem the researchers found was loss of ability to hear high-frequencies.
This is something that is normally found in adults, and happens naturally with age. Around 1 in 3 adults over the age of 65 will have some loss of ability to hear high-frequencies. This makes sounds like ‘d’, ‘f’, ‘t’, and ‘p’ difficult to hear.
High-frequency hearing loss can also be caused by exposure to loud noise such as concerts, clubs, or heavy machinery. Listening to music over headphones can have the same effect.
Most modern devices have warnings to prevent users from turning up music too loud, but these are easily ignored or bypassed. Many headphones come equipped with their own volume controls which can go much higher, to dangerously loud levels.
Even short exposures to loud (over 100dB) music can permanently damage your hearing, and the louder the sound is the less time it takes.
Unfortunately it doesn’t seem that being aware of the risk is of much help.
A 2008 study found that while adolescents were generally aware of the risks of loud music, this did not affect their listening habits. Most people surveyed said that they typically played their music at the maximum possible volume, and didn’t think they were personally vulnerable to hearing loss.
So what can be done?
The Noisy Planet campaign, run by the National Institute for Health, has plenty of resources for parents and educators. They also have games and infographics aimed at kids and preteens.
They recommend enforcing volume limits on devices, moving speakers further back, and using earplugs when in loud situations such as concerts or festivals.
While the Rotterdam study did find that regular use of portable music players was associated with risk of hearing loss, they did stress that more research was needed to confirm this finding.
In the mean time, it’s still a good idea to encourage your children to lower the volume on their music. They may not appreciate it now, but once hearing damage is done – it’s done forever. And anyway, you don’t remember how loud the music was as a kid, you remember what you were doing at the time, and how it made you feel. And that’s not reliant on volume.