LiveSmart: Turn it Down! Keeping Earbud Volumes in the Safe Zone

[This article was written by Mark Osborn, MD, Chief of Pediatrics, St. Peter’s Hospital, St. Peter’s Health Center for Children.]

It seems like every other person walking by on the street is tethered to their phone via a set of earbuds, or sporting a pair of Bluetooth-enabled headphones or earbuds. Some back-to-school supply lists even require students as early as kindergarten to bring a set of earbuds with them for use in the classroom.

Nearly everyone has heard the warnings by now – long-term exposure to loud music is a recipe for hearing damage. So the question becomes, when using earbuds or headphones, how loud is too loud?

It’s important to remember that, along with the high volume, earbuds project the sound more deeply into the ear canal than traditional headphones do. And the large capacity, high-quality sound and battery duration encourage listening at high volume for long periods.

According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, hearing loss is a serious concern when the listener is exposed to volumes at or above 110-120 decibels, or roughly the sound of a jet taking off. Exposure to more than 85 decibels (about the sound of a power mower) for more than eight hours can cause hearing loss. And for each five decibels up in volume, permissible exposure time is cut in half. That means if you listen to music at full volume (100 decibels or greater) for only 15 minutes, you are in serious danger of permanent hearing loss.

Many phones have the ability to set volume limits, allowing parents to pre-set just how loud their child can listen to their music and videos. Noise-cancelling or over-the-ear headphones offer a safer alternative, although it is important to make sure volume levels are still low enough for the user to hear environmental sound so they are aware of their surroundings.

The best advice is:

  • If you can hear the music from your child’s earbuds, it’s too loud.
  • If your son or daughter has to raise his/her voice to talk with you when listening to a personal music device, it needs to be turned down.
  • If your child has been asking you to repeat yourself or asks “What?” a lot more than usual … get their hearing checked.

St. Peter’s Health Center for Children, 1092 Madison Avenue in Albany, offers a complete range of services for children from newborns to age 18. Services include well-child routine care, sick-child exams, school and camp physicals, sports physicals, immunizations, health maintenance and education, and access to other hospital services and referrals to specialists. Call 518-525-2445 for more information or visit

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