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'Bud' Earphones Are Dangerous!

For years, experts have known that consistent exposure to loud sound, including amplified music, erodes hearing. Now, kids are pumping decibels directly into their ears with the headphones that are standard equipment for MP-3 players, cell phones and even video games.

A study published in August, 2010 in the Journal of the American Medical Association, revealed that a shocking one in five kids age 12-19 now have at least mild hearing loss, a number that grew more than 30 percent between the time surveys were conducted in 1988-1994 and 2005-2006.

Louder than Headphones

The "bud" earphones that fit right into the ear are a main culprit. According to research done at Harvard, they often deliver sound that is almost ten decibels higher than headphones that cover the ear. That’s because the tiny earphones don’t block out surrounding sound very well, so kids turn up the volume even more than they would otherwise.

Also, the batteries that come with these devices last longer, so kids have more unbroken exposure to loud sound. That matters because hearing loss is caused not only by how loud a sound is but also how long a child is exposed.

To understand exactly what’s happening, picture the cochlea, a seashell-shaped structure inside the ear. Your child’s cochlea is filled with fluid and lined with tiny hair cells that wave gently like anemones.

The hair cells pick up sound vibrations and transmit them to the auditory nerve. When hair cells are blasted by sound, they start to look like a wheat field after a windstorm. Damage can be done both by short exposure to really loud sound or by continuous exposure to lower levels of sound.

Kids won’t notice the loss of hair cells because it’s gradual and painless. It’s also permanent. That’s why parents have to step in to be sure the sounds kids hear when they are young won’t compromise their ability to hear when they are older.

What Parents Can Do

Here’s what you can do about this problem.

Educate your child (and yourself) about hearing loss. To make the potential risks more vivid, look at pictures of hair cells before and after they’ve been exposed to loud sound at the Dangerous Decibels website, www.dangerousdecibels.org/virtualexhibit/index.html

Encourage young music lovers to visit websites like www.hearnet.com where they’ll find wish-I-had-known stories by famous musicians who lost their hearing.

Become familiar with the decibel levels that cause damage. Even adults may not recognize dangerously loud sounds, especially if they already have hearing loss. To find out which sounds are actually harmful, check out the interactive chart available from the National Institutes of Deafness and other Communication Disorders, www.nidcd.nih.gov/health/education/decibel/decibel_text.asp

Replace bud earphones with the kind that cover the ear and have a cushion. They may not be as stylish but they are less likely to cause damage. Also, control exposure by setting limits on how long your child is allowed to use headphones each day.

Mark the level of acceptable sound on the volume control with permanent marker. Kids often don’t realize that sound is too loud. A rule of thumb: When "bleed out" sound can be heard from three feet away, the device should be turned down. If you find yourself having constant arguments about sound levels, consider buying a noise meter, available from outlets such as Radio Shack. At $50 or more, the meter isn’t cheap, unless you compare it to the cost of hearing aids!

Be sure your child knows the warning signs that indicate sound is too loud. Temporary hearing loss or ringing in the ears is a clear indication that hair cells are unhappy and your child should find a quieter activity immediately. Remember that headphones aren’t the only source of harmful sound. Even squeeze toys for babies can cause damaging levels of noise. So can loudspeakers at school dances, boomboxes and car stereos. Be sure your child understands that the ears don’t get "get used" to loud sounds. When loud sounds become more tolerable, it’s because hearing has already been damaged.

Have your child use earplugs. When kids are going to be exposed to loud sounds, perhaps because they are attending a rock concert, seeing a loud movie or even cutting the grass, have them wear ear plugs. Although you can find earplugs at drugstores, sporting good stores and music stores, it’s also worth checking out the huge assortment of specialized earplugs at the Ear Plug Superstore. Suggest that young musicians, for example, choose brands that reduce harmful sound without distortion.

My two music-loving sons often want to argue when I say "turn it down." It’s an argument I’m determined to win. You should be too.

Carolyn Jabs is a freelance writer and former contributing editor of Family PC magazine.

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