Falling on Deaf Ears

If you ride mass transit, you may have had the experience of sharing the music from another passenger’s personal stereo. Recently, I could clearly understand the obnoxious lyrics of a teenaged girl’s music, even though she was sitting many seats away from me.

Like many parents, I am always concerned with the content of media our children consume, but this encounter reminded me that there is another risk of damage.

Loss of hearing used to be an issue only for those who worked around huge machines in industrial sites. Because young people routinely “plug in” to various appliances, often with the volume cranked to appalling levels, audiologists are concerned we are raising children who, a few decades from now, will begin suffering from deafness far earlier than their factory-laboring grandparents.

Don’t be deceived by their small size. Personal stereos have been measured to output sound as big as 112 decibels (sound at a rock concert averages between 110 and 120 decibels). According to the Environmental Protection Agency, exposure to even 15 minutes of sound at 115 decibels can cause permanent hearing loss. Considering the length of time these devices may be in use, they present a likely suspect for ear damage.

Noise induced hearing loss can become permanent because tiny hairs inside the middle ear may be literally “sheared off” by loud sounds. These hairs, responsible for initiating the signals that carry sound to the brain on the auditory nerve, will not grow back if they are destroyed. The more of these you lose, the greater your hearing impairment will be. (For a more detailed explanation, check this page from the Baylor College of Medicine in Texas.)

What’s a sure sign that volume levels are too high?

According to Jim Werner, a clinical audiologist who practices with the Pallisar Health Authority in Alberta, Canada, “It’s difficult to know when you are listening too loud, but if a friend can hear your music more than three feet away, it’s playing at damaging levels.”

If you are thinking "my children don’t listen to hard rock, so they are safe," think again. Not surprisingly, our ears don’t distinguish one type of music over another. Having a child choose classical music over rock ‘n roll may be wise for his mind, but won’t necessarily protect his ears.

A recent article published on the World Heath Organization (WHO) website from the Ottawa Citizen offered a surprising statistic: 52% of classical musicians have measurable hearing loss compared to 37% of rock musicians. Another 1990 US study indicates 26% of high school seniors who play in a band have measurable hearing loss, versus only 13% of those students not in a band program.

While that data didn’t convince me to tell my son to quit blowing his clarinet, it was news I hadn’t heard before. As hearing loss is accumulative (remember those tiny hairs?), each time we subject ourselves to loud sounds we risk having hearing loss earlier in life. Because it all adds up, it only makes sense then that we should attempt to “save” our ears for what’s really important.

Learning to play a musical instrument is a worthwhile endeavor, but what about sacrificing our hearing for pop culture? Media use defines a large part of many teens’ lives and is often consumed in mass quantities, leading professionals to believe it is accounting for the premature hearing losses in our current generation. It is interesting to note the segment of our population reaching their 70’s were the first to experience real “hi-fi” stereos when they were young.

Of course music only accounts for part of the many media culprits responsible for hearing loss. I’ve received letters from parents who are concerned not just about the amount of violence in movies, but also about how loud those bullets and bombs are.

The same WHO article claims sounds in the movie Armageddon were measured at 118 decibels – well beyond what is deemed safe. If you’ve sat in a modern theater lately and cringed at the sound levels, that’s your ears trying to protect themselves – another sign of damaging noise. (Some theater chains have responded to complaints about sound by offering movies with volume levels lowered for young parents with babies .)

“Your ears will provide a painful reflex to initial loud sounds,” explains Werner, but adds, “If the high volume continues, your ears eventually relax this defense mechanism.”

Other media noises in a young person’s life include car stereos, video games, and televisions. Even cell phones, especially the ringers, can provide sound output at damaging levels.

Then there’s the issue of how long exposure to electronic media can last. Chances are your daughter’s band class won’t subject her to high sound levels for more than a few hours per week. But CD players boast the ability to play for more than a complete day – on one set of batteries!

What can you do to protect your family members from hearing loss? Perhaps you should begin with the power button! At the very least, making them aware of the possible dangers should help them make better choices with the volume knob.

For teens that seem to have "ear buds" permanently implanted, suggest they play their favorite disc on their personal stereo, and then turn down the volume to the point where it can’t easily be heard three feet away. Now put a small mark on the volume control so they know where the safe level is. Also warn them about the dangers of turning it up to drown out background noise, because the two sources will add together to create even more pressure on their ears.

Another way to mitigate the possible damage is to have them play their music on a standard stereo system. Not only are sound pressure levels less when music bounces off rugs, draperies, and walls, but it has the added bonuses of allowing you to be more involved in the listening choices of your family and not having young people isolated from their environment.

Finally, if your teen enjoys live music – be it classic, rock, or otherwise, encourage them to look for some sort of hearing protection. Inexpensive earplugs can save ears at concerts, while serious musicians can find higher quality plugs that don’t deteriorate sound quality.

Hopefully, as your family gains a greater awareness of the potential danger, your advice won’t fall on deaf ears.

For more information, check the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association or The Hearing Foundation of Canada.

More details about the movies mentioned in this post…