Our children most likely will remember the soundtrack of their lives as music heard through earbuds and MP3 players. But hopefully memories won’t be all they have left. Today’s ubiquitous MP3 players allow users to listen to crystal-clear tunes at high volume for hours on end. And kids, especially, do. According to a recent study in the International Journal of Audiology, 80 percent of teens use their personal listening devices regularly, with 21 percent listening from one to four hours daily, and 8 percent listening more than four hours consecutively.
Unfortunately, the amount of time today’s kids spend plugged in, compounded by the volume of their tunes, puts them at serious risk of hearing loss. What’s worse, by the time the damage becomes clear, it will be too late to reverse it.
Experts have been concerned about the long-term effects of iPods and other personal listening devices for some time. But a new study quantifies the risk in shocking numbers: 1 in 4 of today’s teens is in danger of early hearing loss as a direct result of their listening habits. And those who are misusing MP3 players might find their hearing begins to deteriorate in their 30s and 40s — much earlier than past generations.
That means parents should take precautions now. “In 10 or 20 years it will be too late [when] an entire generation of young people is suffering from hearing problems much earlier than expected from natural aging,” says Chava Muchnik, a communications specialist at Tel Aviv University in Israel and one of the authors of the study. Sounds that are louder than 85 decibels can cause permanent hearing loss. Because some devices can play louder than 129 decibels, the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association suggests keeping music players set to no more than half-volume. Teens could also reduce the risk by choosing over-the-ear headphones instead of the kind of ear buds that commonly come with an iPod.
Hearing loss caused by continuous exposure to loud noise is a slow and progressive process. People may not notice the harm they are causing until years of accumulated damage begins to take hold. By then, it is too late. The damage is irreversible.
People’s hearing is under assault from many sources, and any steps to protect it would be wise. Nearly a fifth of all Americans 12 years or older have hearing loss so severe that it may make communication difficult, according to another recently published study, this one led by Johns Hopkins researchers. The findings, thought to be the first nationally representative estimate of hearing loss, suggest that many more people than previously thought are affected.