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by Monica Vila


“Turn that down!” 

   That was the familiar plea growing up in my house, as my parents constantly battled the sound of blaring rock music coming from my bedroom or my brothers’ room next door.  Whether it was the Top 40 on the radio or the latest CD purchased on a Saturday morning, if it was worth playing, it had to be played loud!

   Now, with my own daughter rapidly getting into today’s music, that’s not a plea I expect to be shouting myself anytime soon.  Why?  Headphones.  Of course they were around in my day, only they were mostly luxury items, occasionally plugged into record decks and CD players for a more intimate listening experience when no one else was around.

   These days, headphones are everywhere.  From the more upscale “noise-reduction” models to the ubiquitous white earbuds courtesy of Apple’s iPod range, headphones are now the preferred choice of most pre-teens and teens for connecting with their music.

   And for parents, that presents a couple of problems.  First, we lose a little of our ability to monitor what our children are listening to, and secondly, we lose all control over the volume levels. Why is the volume issue a problem, you ask?  Isn’t that the whole point of headphones?  Our kids can rock out to their favorite songs while we read a book or watch television in relative peace and quiet.

   Unfortunately it’s not quite that simple. Recent studies have shown that prolonged exposure to high-volume music through headphones, particularly the earbud-style headphones that you push directly into the ear, can seriously impair hearing.  This can be especially harmful to young children, with their more sensitive and less developed ears.

   Robert Novak, director of clinical education in audiology at Purdue University in Indiana, believes the problem is getting worse. “It’s at a different level than we have seen in the past,” says Novak. As music and the use of headphones have become more of a full-day listening experience, he is seeing a regular influx of young people with “older ears on younger bodies.”

   So what can parents do to monitor volume and protect their kids’ hearing?  With younger kids it’s good to set strict limits.  Dean Garstecki, a Northwestern audiologist and professor, suggests the 60 percent/60 minute rule.  He recommends using MP3 players and iPods for no more than an hour a day and at levels below 60 percent of the maximum volume.  And as usual, where there’s a need, an innovative technology solution won’t be too far behind.  An Irvine, CA-based company, Ultimate Ears, offers its LoudEnough earbud range, with built-in volume reducers that automatically cap the decibel level.  The child-friendly styling and colors make the earbuds an easier sell to today’s fashion-conscious kids.

   Another tip is to lower the background noise when your kids have their headphones on. A worst-case situation could be that long road trip to see the grandparents, with mom and dad sitting in the front of the car listening to the radio, one child playing a noisy Nintendo DS game in the back, and another struggling to listen to music on her iPod.  When there is a lot of background noise to compete with, the volume goes up.  One solution is such situations are so-called noise-canceling headphones.  With varying degrees of success (usually the more you pay, the better results you get), these headphones restrict the amount of “outside” noise that is allowed into the ear when the headphones are in use.  A clearer and cleaner listening experience will usually result in less need to crank up the volume.

   If your child is spending a lot of time walking around with headphones on, check out the volume settings and, if necessary, get involved in setting limits.  It’s far easier to try and fix the problem early rather than wait for the results to show up in an annual physical.

MONICA VILA (Chief Technology Mom) is the founder and president of TheOnlineMom.com, an organization and website that offers information and advice to parents on the technology and Internet habits of their children.

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