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As Teens Plug In, Parents Fret

Worries are justified, say hearing loss experts who urge prevention

THURSDAY, Oct. 8 (HealthDay News) -- Parents' worry lists are typically long -- and get longer when their children become teenagers. And high on many lists, it seems, are fears about hearing loss.

Parents, in fact, worry more about their kids damaging their hearing than they do about other health-related issues, including ear infections, sleep problems and asthma, according to a survey in the spring by the American Academy of Otolaryngology--Head and Neck Surgery.

The fears aren't unfounded, according to hearing specialists. As personal music players have become ubiquitous among teens, doctors say they are seeing increasing numbers of children and teens for hearing evaluations.

"We certainly are seeing more and more children who seem to have acquired hearing loss," said Dr. David Tunkel, chief of pediatric otolaryngology at Johns Hopkins Children's Center in Baltimore and chairman-elect of the academy's pediatric otolaryngology committee.

Though studies that chronicle the rise in hearing loss are sparse, Tunkel said, the anecdotal evidence that hearing loss is occurring earlier is clear. "We certainly test more for it," he said, and other experts agreed.

About 12.5 percent of youths ages 6 to 19 -- or about 5.2 million U.S. kids -- have sustained permanent hearing damage from excessive noise exposure, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The rise in popularity of personal music players, plus teens' love of loud rock concerts, underlies much of the problem, Tunkel said.

Dr. Marcella Bothwell, a pediatric otolaryngologist-head and neck surgeon at Rady Children's Hospital in San Diego, agreed. "Every kid has a personal music player," she said, and their love of rock concerts is well known.

That's a problem only because exposure to music from those sources can be dangerously loud, she said.

A whisper, for instance, is typically 30 decibels, the unit of sound measurement used by ear specialists. Loud music, but music not played loud enough to drown out conversations, is about 85 decibels, according to the academy.

But, according to federal workplace safety standards, "if you are exposed to 85 decibels for eight hours on the job, you have to wear ear protection," Bothwell said.

And music from personal players and rock concerts can no doubt be louder than that, she said. Some personal music players can emit music at 115 decibels, according to the academy.

Noises of 100 decibels can damage hearing after 15 minutes, it says.

But there is much parents can do to preserve the hearing of even the biggest teen music fan, said Tunkel and Bothwell.

  • Educate teens about noise-induced hearing loss. And then "empower" them to take responsibility, Boswell said. That works better, she said, than parents telling teens they will confiscate the music player after an hour, the daily time limit recommended by Bothwell.
  • Consider buying protective gear. Noise-isolating headphones, for instance, can block ambient or environmental noise so the person can listen and enjoy the music at lower volumes. Simple earplugs can help tone down concert volume, but the bigger, over-the-ear models work better, she said.
  • Buy a personal music player with volume options. Some players have built-in maximum volume controls that can be set by the user.
  • At rock concerts, use protective gear. University of Minnesota researchers tested 29 concertgoers before and after they attended three concerts, sitting in a range of locations from the stage. Sound levels exceeded all occupational safety levels, no matter where the seat was.
  • Be sure teens have an idea of how loud is too loud. Tunkel suggests a simple test: If others can hear the music when a teen is listening with headphones or earbuds, the music is way too loud.
  • Point out musicians who are role models. Many musicians take pains to protect their hearing. "Parents should point that out," Bothwell said.

More information

The American Academy of Otolaryngology--Head and Neck Surgery has more on noise-induced hearing loss in children.

SOURCES: Marcella Bothwell, M.D., pediatric otolaryngologist/head and neck surgeon, Rady Children's Hospital, San Diego; David Tunkel, M.D., chief, pediatric otolaryngology, Johns Hopkins Children's Center, Baltimore; survey, American Academy of Otolaryngology--Head and Neck Surgery, May 2009; April 2006, Otolaryngology--Head and Neck Surgery; American Academy of Otolaryngology--Head and Neck Surgery (; U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (

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