Sound Advice for MP3 Users

As teens and preteens plug in their earphones and crank up the volume, "Can you hear me now?" threatens to become more than an ad catch phrase.

Experts say today's small music players pose a big risk of hearing loss. One reason: The "earbuds" used with iPods and other MP3 players fit into the ears, not over them. That makes the sound more intense than old models. Their digital songs are distortion-free, too. That invites kids to dial up the loudness with no loss of clarity. Most portable music players can reach 120 decibels, louder than a lawn mower or chain saw.

"These devices put out levels that exceed 85 decibels, the maximum safe occupational exposure in an eight-hour day," says Sigfrid D. Soli, Ph.D., a research scientist with the House Ear Institute in Los Angeles. "But young kids and preteens can listen anytime and all the time."

Such constant pounding by loud noise, he warns, can cause permanent harm to the fragile hair cells of the inner ear. Because it doesn't cause pain, he adds, the damage can sneak up on kids years later. Even moderately loud noise can permanently damage the hair cells if the noise continues over time. The hair cells help send sound information to the brain; if they are damaged or destroyed, hearing loss results. The hair cells don't recover or produce new hair cells to replace damaged cells.

A more immediate risk involves so-called "iPod oblivion." Users tune out their surroundings so much that they risk accidents or assaults.

Preventive steps

To lessen the odds of hearing loss, Dr. Soli and other experts offer this advice:

  • Don't allow a child younger than 12 to regularly use a portable music player.

  • Encourage your child to tune the player no higher than 60 percent of the top volume, or a little over halfway on the dial. The volume should be low enough to hear surrounding sounds and conversation.

  • Have your child use earphones that sit on top of, not inside, the ear.

  • See a doctor if ringing or buzzing in the ears lasts more than a day.

Also, limit the amount of time the player is used each day, and count that time as part of the overall "media" time of computers, video games and TV. The increasingly sedentary lifestyle of childhood is contributing to the obesity epidemic among youngsters.

Parents can ask for hearing tests at their child's routine doctor visits. And Dr. Soli has some more advice for parents:

"If you have to shout to be heard by your child, or you can hear music from their headphones from across the room, there's a reasonable likelihood that they are listening to a level that, over time, could produce hearing loss. And it's important to realize that, unlike hearing loss that comes with age and disease, noise-induced hearing loss is entirely preventable."

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