Technology has a big presence in the lives of children and teens today, and whether they are watching cartoons on an iPad, playing video games or listening to music on their phones, this tech-time adds up to a lot of hours with headphones on. A study conducted in 2015 revealed that over half of 8-to-12-year-olds listen to music every day, and nearly two-thirds of teenagers do.

Listening to music is great way to get energized, release stress, and process emotions, but it can also lead to permanent hearing damage when the volume reaches dangerous levels. Many parents are now turning to volume-limiting headphones, which promise to restrict volume to a safe level. These headphones can certainly help, but some have been proven ineffective. If you are a parent who is concerned about your child’s listening habits, the best thing you can do is test their headphones out yourself to make sure they are safe, as well as talking to your children about the importance of safe listening habits.

Safe and unsafe decibel levels

When it comes to volume and hearing damage, there’s a simple rule: the louder the sound, the shorter the time you can safely listen to it.

The sound level heard by our ears is commonly measured in decibels, but this is where it gets tricky–for each increase of 10 decibels, the sound level perceived by our ears doubles. So, 100 decibels is actually twice as loud as 90 decibels, and this is why in the upper volume levels hearing damage can occur so quickly.

On an Apple music player such as an iPhone, the top volume is 102 decibels, the same volume as a leaf blower, a power lawn mower, or a helicopter at 100 feet away. At this level, only 5-10 minutes of listening is safe for adult ears, and damage can occur in children’s ears even more rapidly than that.

Keeping the volume at 70 percent, or 82 decibels, has been ruled safe for eight hours a day, but in children an even lower volume level is advisable. 80 percent volume, or 89 decibels, is safe for only 90 minutes.

Keep in mind that ears can adapt to higher volume levels over time, and it is possible that your child or teenager may not even realize that the higher volume may be harmful to their hearing. Remember also that the inner ear of a child is more sensitive to noise, and thus more susceptible to noise-related hearing damage. 

What can you do to protect your child’s ears?

While the increasing rate of hearing loss among children and teens is worrying, parents and educators around the world are making positive strides in educating children about safe listening. Especially with young children, monitoring is key, but as kids get older they need to know how to safeguard their own hearing–and to understand why they should. Here are some steps you can take to protect your children’s hearing.

  1. Test your child’s headphones yourself. Even if your child’s or teen’s headphones has a volume-restricting function, make sure to listen to the headphones at maximum volume yourself, to see how loud the music can get. In a recent analysis by Wirecutter, 30 sets of children’s headphones did not restrict volume to the promised limit. If you have difficulty hearing someone at arm’s length, the level is probably greater than 85 decibels. For children, 60 percent of the maximum volume is enough.


  1. Set listening breaks. You can help to protect your child’s ears at home by insisting they take listening breaks. The harmful effect of loud music is cumulative, but making your child or teen takes listening breaks every hour will give the hair cells in the inner ear a chance to rest — and this will help protect their ears from long-term hearing damage.


  1. Stress the importance of NOT turning up the volume in loud places. When children are listening to music or watching TV in a loud environment, they will often turn up the volume to compensate. Explain why this is dangerous and look for headphones that help to cancel background noise as well as restrict volume.


  1. Consider noise-cancelling headphones, rather than earbuds. For young children, headphones are a safer choice than earbuds, which place sounds closer to the delicate structures of the inner ear. Noise-cancelling headphones, while more expensive, have the added benefit of blocking out environmental noises that may be harmful.


  1. Supervision is key. This is especially true with young children, even when they are using headphones with a set volume limit. According to pediatric audiologist Brian Fligor, “Eighty-five decibels isn’t some magic threshold below which you’re perfectly safe.” 


  1. Set an example of safe listening habits. Parents and teachers can help to prevent noise-induced hearing loss by making children aware of the dangers of loud sounds from an early age. You can promote and model safe listening by:

-always wearing ear protection in noisy environments

-turning down the television and music players when they are too loud

-taking listening breaks (and explaining why you are doing so)

-covering your ears when exposed to sudden loud noises

-talking about the importance of listening to music at a safe volume

Visit Us at Orange County Physicians’ Hearing Services

Our team provides comprehensive hearing health care for kids and teens. Establish safe hearing and good hearing health practices early on – schedule an annual hearing test for your child with us today!