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Parents are being warned to monitor digital device use over the Christmas holiday season as the impact of loud music can cause Noise-Induced Hearing Loss (NIHL) among Kiwi children, according to a leading expert.
Dr David Welch, head of Auckland University’s audiology department, says listening to loud music may be addictive in a similar way to cigarette smoking, and more needs to be done to address its impact on society and children in particular.
His warning comes following international research which shows a rise in the rate of hearing loss among youth.
Dr Welch says global studies show around 14 percent of children may have noise induced hearing loss which could be a result of prolonged exposure to personal listening devices.
Noise-induced hearing loss is hearing impairment resulting from exposure to loud sound.
“People with this condition may have a measurable loss of hearing in a range of frequencies, but may also have impaired perception of sound in noisy environments, and this may occur alongside tinnitus, or ringing in the ears,” he says.
Dr Welch says that the maximum safe level for prolonged listening is generally considered to be 85 decibels - with most smartphones capable of producing volumes of up to about 120 decibels.
“The general trend appears to be that devices like smartphones are getting louder over time - with the latest model from one of the most popular brands capable of producing 25 percent higher volume than its predecessor,” he says.
Dr Welch says if volume increases beyond 85 decibels, the threat to hearing rises and after two hours of listening to a device at 91 dB the child has incurred a similar level of exposure to working a shift in a noisy factory where hearing protection would be required by law. .
“One girl I met through a hearing health promotion programme we run in schools lives in a crowded household and she has trouble getting to sleep, so at night she plugs the phone into the wall, puts her headphones on to the highest volume and goes to sleep. With the volume at the maximum level this would be well in excess of 100 decibels and she was going to sleep each night like this,” he says.
“Parents look at ways to limit the amount of time their children spend listening to loud music, whether it is in the car, at concerts or on devices,” he says
Dr Welch has researched the psychological reasons why we listen to music at high volume and says it's the social function music plays in bringing people together which is partly responsible for impacting hearing health.
“There is a cultural acceptance of loud music, it's something we have come to expect whenever we celebrate or come together as a group. For kids there is a sense that listening to loud music is cool, and it makes them feel both part of a group but also they are able to lose themselves in it, it gives them a splendid isolation and a feeling of being able to cut themselves off from anything that’s bothering them,” he says.
Dr Welch says in addition to the psychological arousal, there is a strong physiological or tactile response on our bodies which occurs when listening to loud music.
“It’s almost an addictive process of conditioning which results from the repeat exposure. That’s one of the reasons why we enjoy music in a concert setting or in a dance environment, we get the bass notes running through our whole bodies,” he says.
Dr Welch says change needs to come at a societal level with better awareness of the permanent damage which is occurring in some everyday environments.
“We can draw a parallel with smoking, which is also harmful behaviour, but one that as a society we’re just not accepting anymore. We are much more tolerant of loud music even though we know it causes a permanent injury which can destroy our lives and cut us off from the people we care about. The strange thing is that even though we know this, it still it doesn’t seem to be a deterrent,” he says.
“I’ve had people tell me that losing their hearing has felt like a ‘’living death’ to them and it's brought tears to my eyes, to hear them suffer from something which is utterly preventable,” he says.
“There no opportunity for intimacy with people because that just goes out the window when people have to shout at someone.The only time people talk to you is when they're shouting at you,” he says.
Dr Welch says hearing is damaged through apoptosis where noise-damaged sensory cells in the inner ear will shut down and quietly kill themselves so they can’t cause further harm.
“This process causes scarring which prevents new cells growing in their place. What’s more, the nerve fibres that convey information from the ear to the brain are also thought to be threatened by exposure to loud sound.
“We are worried that this could become an epidemic of the digital generation - our children not aware of the potential impact and may be vulnerable to long term damage as a result,” he says.
Lee-Ann Verry from Puro Sound Labs, a distributor of children's headphones which automatically restrict maximum volume began importing the product after becoming concerned about her own children’s digital device use.
“We originally started bringing in the headphones because we were worried about the high volume our kids we're being exposed to and we have been working hard to raise awareness of this issue in schools around the country,” says Verry.
Verry says there is a growing understanding among parents and schools that there is a real health risk associated with ongoing exposure to music at loud volumes.
“One of the concerns is that schools will often buy the least expensive headphones on the market which can produce a poor quality sound - as a result of the background noise, children will often turn the volume up to the maximum setting in the classroom - we are trying to educate against this,” she says.