For months, millions of kids have been obligated to learn virtually at home due to the global pandemic, and it’s likely that will continue for the rest of the year. Although headphones are being used for hours on a daily basis, some headphones may cause harm. Shairene Alo, a speech language pathologist and founder of Carpe Diem Speech Therapy in Sylvania, explains that speakers are the safest choice to protect hearing, but that is not always possible when learning from home.
“The American Speech-Language-Hearing Association recommends wearing headphones that fit over the ear rather than earbuds that go into the ear canal,” she says. “The earbuds that fit into the ear canal are closer to the hair cells that are vital to hearing and can be damaged by overexposure to high decibel sound. Once these hair cells are damaged, it is permanent and they cannot be repaired.”
Clint Keifer, doctor of audiology and owner of Great Lakes Audiology, clarifies, “While the style of headphones/earbuds can have an influence on sound levels presented to the eardrum and beyond, it is important to realize that proper fit, comfort, and education on use make a bigger difference. For example, in an environment with more background noise, headphones or earbuds which seal the ear better will allow the user to adequately play the volume at lower levels.”
Keifer adds, “The risk of potential noise induced hearing damage arises from a combination of high volume levels and duration, what we refer to as ‘dosing’ in audiology. Educating children on the dangers of too much volume for too long is a concept that goes beyond relying on the technology, which can vary greatly. Noise ‘dose’ means that you can listen to your favorite song for a few minutes at a louder level and be fine, but if you listen at the same level for hours you overload the cells of your inner ears (hair cells). ”
Alo suggests reducing background noises so the listener isn’t forced to turn up the volume. TVs, radios and having conversations around the virtual learner isn’t ideal. If that’s not possible due to parents working from home or other children present in the home, then noise-cancelling headphones or earbuds are great options. Alo recommends brands such as Bose and Sony.
“We will want to make sure that they fit comfortably, either snugly over the ears and head, or deep into the ear canal to allow the noise-cancelling technology to work properly,” she clarifies. Alo cites that researchers predict hearing loss will continue to increase in the number of children due to the usage of personal listening devices. She recommends keeping the volume level at fifty percent when using headphones or earbuds.
“If a sound reaches 85 decibels or louder, it can begin to cause permanent damage to hearing,” she warns. For children with hearing loss or who use hearing aids or cochlear implants, Alo said some of the same principles apply, such as reducing background noise.
“The challenge is to make sure that they have enough and appropriate auditory input that can facilitate virtual learning,” she said. “We don’t really worry about more hearing loss because hearing aids, when programmed properly, have volume limits pre-set by the audiologist so they can’t reach a dangerous volume level.”
Keifer adds, “While hearing aids are indeed programmed with a safe amplification prescription for hearing loss by an audiologist, they may not protect the user from naturally high noises. Many hearing aid fittings leave the ear canals more open, which can allow for naturally loud sounds to reach the eardrum without being amplified by the hearing aids.”
He continues, “Current hearing aid technology allows for many hearing aids to ‘double’ as earphones using wireless audio transmission, such as Bluetooth, and pass the sound through the user’s amplification prescription!”
Alo says modeling and talking to children about safe listening practices and the danger of loud noise: “Wear earplugs while using power tools, when at a concert, during fireworks, or when at a shooting range to protect your hearing. Talk to your doctor if you notice that your hearing has been affected and they can refer you to an audiologist for testing.”