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This article originally appeared in the Jan. 26, 2012, edition of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. 


With MP3 players and music streaming on phones, kids never have their favorite tunes more than a cord away. But experts warn that earbuds can pose a greater danger than the occasional earworm (that is to say, a song that gets stuck in your head). Wearing earbuds can lead to problems if the child has music turned up too loud or is inattentive while wearing the headpieces.

The number of people injured while wearing earbuds has tripled since 2004, according to a recent study in “Injury Prevention” journal. In 2010-11, 47 pedestrians were injured when they did not hear a car or train as a result of listening to music through earbuds. This is a big increase from six years prior, when only 16 such incidents were noted. The sound coming from headphones can mask outside noise, making it difficult to hear traffic or a warning horn that might have saved a life.

Children and teens must understand the importance of being attentive to the traffic and vehicles around them, as they walk to school or around the neighborhood. Although kids may assume they will be watchful enough to make up for their diminished hearing, parents should explain that we need all of our senses to be careful and protect ourselves.

Listening to music through headphones comes with another set of dangers, as well. Because earbuds are designed to provide the clearest possible sound, they sit very close to the eardrum. Listening to music too loudly through earbuds can cause hearing problems, particularly in children.

“It can eventually cause a hearing loss,” said Sarah Duncan, lead audiologist at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center. “It may not be an immediate hearing loss; it could appear years down the road.”

Chainsaws and motorcycles create about 100 decibels of sound—a level that can damage hearing after less than half an hour. An MP3 player at 70 percent of its top volume is about 85 decibels. This level of sound for long periods of time can put listeners in real danger of permanent hearing loss.

For teens, it can be difficult to understand the seriousness of hearing loss years away versus the fun of listening to loud music. That’s why Duncan suggests parents check up on kids, to ensure that they are listening to music at safe levels. To help parents gauge how loud their children are listening to music through earbuds, Duncan suggests a simple test.

“If other people can hear your music when you have earbuds in, that’s too loud,” Duncan said. “Kids who are listening to earbuds at a safe and comfortable level should be able to hear conversations going on around them.”

Many MP3 players also come with volume limits that parents can set. These volume limits can be locked, preventing the user from turning music up beyond the limit without the passcode.

A concern with noise-induced hearing loss is that it happens so gradually that many people don’t realize they have a problem until too late. Signs that a child might have hearing loss including a ringing, buzzing or roaring in the ears after hearing a loud noise and a muffling or distortion of sounds.

It is important to avoid the problem in the first place and to take action at the first signs of a problem. Many famous musicians such as Phil Collins and Roger Daltrey have come out and stated how regretful they feel about losing their hearing. Recent reports show that classical musicians are at risk as well: Trumpeters playing pieces such as Mahler’s Ninth Symphony reach very loud volumes that could induce deafness.

Parents who suspect their children have hearing loss should contact the family pediatrician, who may refer the patient to an audiologist.

Dr. Bob Wilmott is Chief of Pediatrics at SSM Cardinal Glennon Children’s Medical Center and is a Professor of Pediatric Medicine at Saint Louis University School of Medicine. If you have a question about your child’s health, go to the “Ask Dr. Bob” section of the Cardinal Glennon Web site at

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