Little girl with headphones listening to music

With the increasing use of earbuds and headphones for music and other media, experts predict that nearly one in four people will experience hearing loss by 2050, according to the 2021 World Report on Hearing by the World Health Organization. About 65% of users listen at harmful volumes, leading to noise-induced hearing loss.

A global study from 2020 found that 24% of individuals aged 12–35 listen to sound at unsafe levels. The devices themselves and the noisy environments young people frequent, such as music venues, busy cafes, school cafeterias, and sporting events, pose a risk to hearing

How loud is too loud?

It’s crucial to understand that as sound volume increases, the time it takes to damage your hearing is significantly reduced. This means that even a few minutes of exposure to high-volume sound can have long-term consequences on your hearing. Any sound at or above 85 dB is more likely to damage your hearing over time. To put it into perspective, 85 dB is equivalent to the noise level of a food processor or a vacuum cleaner.

Many young people use devices with sound levels much higher than 85 dB. For instance, when music is played through headphones at the highest volume, it often reaches 94–110 dB. The upper level of 110 dB is more than 100 times as intense as 85 dB. The volume is too high if a young person is wearing over-ear headphones and you can hear the lyrics.

Dr. Woolford, a pediatrician at the University of Michigan and co-director of the Mott poll emphasized in a university news release that young children are more vulnerable to potential harm from noise exposure. This is because their auditory systems are still developing, and their ear canals are smaller than adults’, intensifying perceived sound levels.

In 2022, the World Health Organization established standards for addressing hearing loss in young people. One standard is for devices with a default output level set between 70 and 85 decibels to protect hearing. However, this default setting is not enabled in devices sold in the U.S., so it’s up to parents, caregivers, and users to activate it by reviewing the device settings.

DB chart - How loud is too loud

Creating safe listening habits

It’s crucial to help tweens develop safe listening habits to protect their hearing for the long term. Three factors affect safe listening: decibels, time, and distance. The higher the decibels, the less time you can safely listen at that level. You can reduce the impact of high sound levels by moving farther away from the source, such as an amplifier at a concert, which allows you to listen for a more extended period.

Parents can reduce the risks of noise exposure to their kids by employing several strategies.

The most important thing is to monitor the volume levels on the devices. An excellent way to know if the audio is too loud is if a child wearing headphones can’t hear you when you’re an arm’s length away. We recommend that parents follow the “60/60” rule — no more than 60 minutes daily with earbuds or headphones at no more than 60% of the maximum volume.

Parents should also consider the risk of noise exposure when purchasing one of these devices for their kids. Listening devices that emit less than 70 decibels (dBA) are far less likely to cause noise-related damage.

Check the product information on devices and choose those that limit the volume. However, don’t necessarily trust products marketed as “kid-safe” since some don’t limit their volume to 70 decibels.

Mother, Daughter listening to music through headphones

Here are some tips for safe listening::

    • Activate volume control limits on devices..
    • Teach tweens to lower the volume.
    • Listen with the volume set to 80% for no more than 90 minutes.
    • Move away from loud sound sources.
    • Wear ear protection such as earplugs or earmuffs in noisy environments or during noisy activities.

    Remember to take breaks from wearing earbuds. Instead of using earbuds for eight hours, switch to over-ear headphones. Alternatively, you can wear one earbud at a time and alternate between ears. Consider choosing devices with noise-cancellation features and better sound quality. This can help reduce the urge to turn up the volume to drown out surrounding noise.

    Another important tip is to ensure your in-ear devices are kept clean. Bacteria on earbuds can lead to infections such as swimmer’s ear, which is painful and itchy.

    Early signs of hearing loss may include asking for people to repeat themselves, frequently hearing ringing noises(tinnitus), speaking loudly to people nearby, delayed speech, and lack of reaction to loud noises. Healthcare providers can help parents by providing a simple explanation about hearing loss to help the child understand the reasons for limiting their use of audio devices.

    Learn more about safe listening habits and the effect of high sound levels on young people’s hearing. If you suspect the young people in your family may have hearing loss, call us today and schedule a consult with one of our highly trained audiologists.