Tips to Protecting Hearing from Holiday Electronics

Parents and children giving or receiving an electronic device with music this holiday season should give their ears a gift as well by pre-setting the maximum decibel level to somewhere between one-half and two-thirds maximum volume.

Any sound more than 85 decibels (dBs) exceeds what hearing experts consider to be a safe level and some MP3 players are programmed to reach levels as high as 120 dBs at their maximum.

Vanderbilt Bill Wilkerson Center Director Ron Eavey, M.D., who also chairs the department of otolaryngology, said the new generation is especially susceptible to hearing loss when they listen to music with headphones or earbuds either too long or too loud.

One preventive measure is to pre-set the device so that it cannot be turned up to damaging levels.

"As parents, we can't hear how loud their music is when they have the earbuds in so this is an important step," Eavey said. "I can tell you that if you hear the music coming from their headphones it is too loud, but an easier way to know for sure is to preset the device. This will still allow them to listen to and enjoy their music but will safeguard against ear-damaging volume levels."

Eavey said the problem stems from the fact that our brains love music and inherently want the volume turned up but our ears can't always handle that volume adjustment. "If you are walking down the street listening to your MP3 player and there is a jackhammer across the street, most people will turn up their MP3 player to drown out the jackhammer," he said.

Anne Marie Tharpe, professor and chair of Hearing and Speech Sciences, said that noise-induced hearing loss is often not obvious right away, especially with young children. "The symptoms can initially be subtle and include difficulty hearing when there is background noise," she said. "Such losses can result in significant challenges for children in classroom settings."

It is also important to remember that higher resolution music downloads will allow for better sound at low volume levels. Music with little detail, or lower resolution, will play at a lower quality.

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