I remember when I went to college to begin my freshman year (it doesn’t seem that long ago!) my parents and I loaded up a U-Haul trailer for the ride up from New Jersey to Vermont. I didn’t need the trailer for the clothes — I didn’t have that many as an 18-year-old to begin with and, besides, I was already used to doing my own laundry by that point. Nor was I transporting furniture to my closet-sized “Shoebox” dorm room (they have since been demolished). Even my guitars and amplifier could have squeezed in beside me in the back seat of my parent’s Mercury Monarch. Why I needed that trailer was for something important to me, something that was (and in many ways, still is) a big part of who I was (and still am) as a person: My books and my music. The U-Haul carried clothes, yes, and the guitars and amp and other accoutrements associated with this freshman flatlander hippie hitting the campus at the University of Vermont in 1978. But the trailer was for the boxes of books I could not leave behind. And it was for the stereo — the big Marantz (solid state!) receiver and amplifier, a clunky (and heavy) Technics tape deck, TEAC turntable, and huge (I mean huge) Boston Acoustic speakers — and for the two huge peach crates of albums (affectionately referred to today as “vinyl”) and three or four boxes of cassette tapes (my graduation from 8-track completed the summer before). No way all that stuff was going to fit in the trunk of the old Monarch!
Kids today don’t need U-Haul trailers for their “stuff.” Who needs books? Practically everything they read is at the tip of their fingers on their laptops, tablets, e-readers, and smartphones. Each year it seems that more and more college textbooks are e-books. Our young students keep all their music on smartphones which can fit in a shirt pocket along with high quality ear buds. Today, no one needs peach crates for albums. An app for Spotify or iTunes can, for a small price (certainly less for a year’s subscription than the cost of renting a U-Haul), have access to a seemingly limitless library of recordings. Free online sites such as the Internet Archive expand that library even more. (Venture there at your own risk, especially if you, like me, prefer live-and-jammy music!)
There is one thing that hasn’t changed, however. Does this conversation sound familiar?
Mom: Turn that music down!!!
Mom: That music. Turn it dooowwwnnn! You’re going to go deaf!
Me: No, mom, I am not going to go deaf. Besides, it’s not that loud.
Mom: Yes it is. It’s very loud. Why do you have to listen to your music that loud? I can hear it clearly through your [quite large and heavy over-ears Koss] headphones!
The kids like their music. And Catherine Saint Louis reminds us that they like it loud:
Half of 8- to 12-year-olds listen to music daily, and nearly two-thirds of teenagers do, according to a 2015 report with more than 2,600 participants. Safe listening is a function of both volume and duration: The louder a sound, the less time you should listen to it.
Like their parents’, young ears are at risk:
It’s not a linear relationship. Eighty decibels is twice as loud as 70 decibels, and 90 decibels is four times louder.
Exposure to 100 decibels, about the volume of noise caused by a power lawn mower, is safe for just 15 minutes; noise at 108 decibels, however, is safe for less than three minutes.
The workplace safety limit for adults, set by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health in 1998, is 85 decibels for no more than eight hours. But there is no mandatory standard that restricts the maximum sound output for listening devices or headphones sold in the United States.
When cranked all the way up, modern portable devices can produce sound levels from 97 to 107 decibels, a 2011 study found.
The authors of The Wirecutter review of “The Best Kids Headphones” explain how high decibel noise does its damage to hearing:
For most of human history, anything loud enough to damage the ears—say, 109 dBA or more—would be likely to kill us. A crack of lighting or a volcanic eruption at close range would permanently damage your ears, sure, but the rest of you would be so messed up that you’d have other things to worry about (like dying). Anything else that could get somewhat loud, like the human voice yelling, would give out before it ever did long-term harm to the ears.
But in this post-industrial society, people are regularly exposed to those kinds of sounds, from motorcycles, chainsaws, concerts, and yes, headphones. And that’s where the modern problem comes in. When the tiny hairs of the inner ear trigger the nerve cells to fire, those cells create a waste product. It’s somewhat similar to your leg muscles building up lactic acid after a very long run. If the noise is quiet, not much waste is produced. If it’s loud but short, the cells get a chance to rest and clear out the waste. But listen loud enough and long enough, and the cells can’t clean out the waste quickly enough—and eventually the waste kills the cell. This is why duration matters as much as volume. Noise exposure is a lot like sun exposure: Long enough, and bright enough, and you’ll burn.
If headphones and earbuds are on your children’s holiday wish list, Saint Louis offers some words of caution:
These days, even 3-year-olds wear headphones, and as the holidays approach, retailers are well stocked with brands that claim to be “safe for young ears” or to deliver “100 percent safe listening.” The devices limit the volume at which sound can be played; parents rely on them to prevent children from blasting, say, Rihanna at hazardous levels that could lead to hearing loss.
But a new analysis by The Wirecutter, a product recommendations website owned by The New York Times Company, has found that half of 30 sets of children’s headphones tested did not restrict volume to the promised limit. The worst headphones produced sound so loud that it could be hazardous to ears in minutes.
“These are terribly important findings,” said Cory Portnuff, a pediatric audiologist at the University of Colorado Hospital who was not involved in the analysis. “Manufacturers are making claims that aren’t accurate.”
The new analysis should be a wake-up call to parents who thought volume-limiting technology offered adequate protection, said Dr. Blake Papsin, the chief otolaryngologist at the Hospital for Sick Children in Toronto.
We explored this topic on The PediaBlog three years ago here.