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Headphones and hearing damage: teaching my child to protect their ears

27 February 2019
A young girl is smiling with her eyes closed whilst listening to sounds through a pair of bright, blue headphones. She is standing against a blue background.

These days, children as young as three are listening to music, watching videos, TV and playing games on portable devices using headphones. According to Ofcom, 83% of 12 to 15 year olds have their own smartphone. More than two-thirds play games online with 77% spending more than 12 hours gaming each week. On top of this almost all 12 to 15 year olds spend up to 21 hours a week online, with the most popular content being music and videos.

As a parent you will know that this will often be done using headphones or earbuds. You may be unaware of the dangers of hearing damage that can result from unsafe listening, or you might be looking for ways to safeguard your child’s hearing, while still ensuring they can continue do the things they enjoy into adulthood.

Safe listening is about more than just volume; it is about duration and the way in which we listen to music, stories, video and games. Reducing the damage caused by regular loud noise for long periods of time by protecting their hearing is something that children need to be taught.

Pink, over-ear headphones lying on a matching pink surface 

So why worry about headphones?

Portable devices are improving all the time. With a tap of a finger we can access video, gaming and music entertainment wherever we are. For many, and indeed our children, it is one of the biggest joys of modern living and takes up a considerable proportion of their time.

Inner ear damage is permanent. Noise-induced hearing loss can take a while to progress and by the time it is noticed it may be too late to reverse.

Earbuds in particular can cause more damage than traditional retro-style headphones; this is because having the device in the ear increases the sound’s volume by around six to nine decibels. The louder the volume, the more quickly hearing damage can occur. If you consider how sound is measured, you can see for example that 70 decibels is twice as loud as 60 decibels (roughly the level of the human voice) you can see why this is an issue.

Teaching your child to identify early warnings of hearing damage

Prevention is key when we talk about noise-induced hearing damage. There are however some common signs of hearing damage that children can learn to look out for:

  • Ringing or buzzing in their ears after loud sounds

  • The experience that sounds are somehow muffled or a ‘full’ feeling in the ears

  • Not being able to easily hear someone talking just a few feet away

Read more about signs of hearing loss in children and babies from the NHS.

Ask your child about changes in their hearing. If they report any of the symptoms above this may be a warning sign that you need to get it professionally tested. You can read more about hearing testing here.

A child with sunglasses and headphones on blows a bubblegum bubble. She is standing against a yellow background. 

Some of the ways children can learn to prevent damage from headphones

Things you can teach your children and teenagers about using headphones include:

  • Noise-induced hearing damage is on the increase in the UK and is completely avoidable

  • The 60%/60 minute rule is a useful way to ensure you are listening safely with headphones. This approach means you never listen to anything with the sound at more than 60% of the maximum volume and you limit your listening time to 60 minute periods.

  • A great rule of thumb in determining if your volume is too loud is whether other people can hear what you are listening to when you are wearing your headphones. If they can, turn it down until they can no longer hear it.

  • Headphones are better than earbuds. There are a wide range of styles available to suit every taste. Bear in mind that although they are better, the same rules apply.

Teaching our children to take care of themselves is a major part of the parenting we do. From basic life-skills like hygiene and eating healthily, to social norms including manners and behaviour, they’re learning all the time. Protecting their hearing by using portable devices and headphones safely is another skill children and teenagers can use for the rest of their lives.

Read more about protecting your hearing
"Ask your child about changes in their hearing. If they report any of the symptoms above this may be a warning sign that you need to get it professionally tested."