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A preventable problem: Noise-induced hearing loss in kids

Here are tips to help your kids use their audio devices safety to prevent hearing loss.

Editor's note: The 2016 American Speech-Language-Hearing Association Convention will be held at the Pennsylvania Convention Center from November 17–19. It a conference for speech-language pathologists, audiologists, and speech, language, and hearing scientists.

With a large number of kids using ear buds and headphones, noise-induced hearing loss is a serious issue, according to the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association. Just last year, the World Health Organization estimated 1.1 billion teenagers and young adults are at risk of hearing loss due to the unsafe use of personal audio devices, including smartphones, and exposure to damaging levels of sound at noisy entertainment venues such as nightclubs, bars, and sporting events.

This week, the ASHA brought its initiative—the Listen To Your Buds concert series to six Philadelphia schools. The campaign brings in award-winning musicians to elementary schools to teach kids about the importance of using technology safely to protect their hearing for the rest of their lives.

We spoke with Joy Peterson, Au.D., CCC-A, manager of audiology at the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia, more about the Listen To Your Buds program and tips for parents to help kids' ears safe.

Can you tell us more about the Listen To Your Buds campaign?

We were in six elementary schools this week to educate children about the importance of practicing "safe listening" when using technology devices such as mp3 players, tablets, and smartphones so they don't inadvertently damage their hearing. We know from public polling that the vast majority of children now use these devices, and they often use them along with ear buds or headphones.

This is the 10th anniversary of the Buds campaign, and the second time we've come into Philadelphia public schools with our concert series, the last time was in 2010. This time around, jazz musicians Jazzy Ash & the Leaping Lizards and Oran Etkin alternated headlining our concerts.

Why is it important to educate children in this age group about safe listening and hearing loss?

Experts suspect that noise-induced hearing loss is a growing problem with the increasing popularity of personal tech devices. Noise-induced hearing loss is completely preventable, but once it occurs, it is irreversible. This is why delivering these educational messages is so important. With the Buds campaign, the idea is to get the safe listening message to younger children before they start to develop the bad habits with technology—like cranking the volume for hours on end. So, educating teenagers is important, but let's start talking to them earlier—when our messages may make even more of an impact.

What guidance do you give children about safe listening?

We keep our messages very simple. When listening to devices, number one: turn the volume down. Number two: give your ears a rest by taking listening breaks. We've found elementary school age children to be highly receptive to our messages and the format of the concerts.  We help them to appreciate the fact that their hearing is a gift—and something they wouldn't want to lose.

What is the impact of hearing loss on children?

Hearing is critical to speech and language development, communication, and learning. Even so-called "minimal or mild" hearing loss can have a significant impact on children. Children with hearing loss may have difficulty with all areas of academic achievement, especially reading and math. Children with mild to moderate hearing loss achieve one to four grade levels lower, on average, than their peers with normal hearing, unless appropriate management occurs.

We also must address social considerations, with some children reporting social isolation and poor self-esteem.  Hearing loss can even impact later vocational choices. All of this points to the importance of preventing noise-induced hearing loss as well as early identification of any type of hearing problem.

What advice do you offer parents?

In addition to reinforcing the messages we give to kids, parents need to model safe listening behavior themselves. As with everything else in life, children look to their parents for guidance. It's also important that parents educate themselves about the signs of hearing loss so that any hearing issue can be addressed early—when the negative consequences can be minimized through speedy intervention.

Also, there are many products available to help parents protect their children's hearing. These include things like earplugs and earmuffs designed to protect hearing in loud sound environments as well as earphones and headphones that limit the volume levels to reduce the risk for hearing loss. While these products are valuable tools, their appropriate use still requires that the child understands the dangers of loud sound and that they are at risk of noise-induced hearing loss.

What should you do if you are concerned about your child's hearing?

Get your child's hearing checked immediately! Don't delay. Seek an evaluation from a certified audiologist, who can conduct an in-depth assessment of your child's hearing to determine the nature and degree of the hearing loss and the best treatment options. A searchable database of certified audiologists is available here.

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