Start Early to Protect Children’s Ears From That MP3 Player

Practical ways to get the music turned down—including a free concert

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Who knew that music can be hazardous to your health? It is when it's loud music, whether it's Metallica or the Jonas Brothers. And I'm forever turning down the music in the car, while my 6-year-old and my husband are cranking it back up. (Trust me, listening to "A Pizza the Size of the Sun" at heavy metal levels is no picnic.)

So I called Pam Mason, a certified audiologist who works often with musicians who want to protect their hearing. "Noise is pollution," Mason says. "Children don't often think that by putting themselves into a noisy environment, they're putting their hearing in danger." And once hearing is lost, it's lost for life.

So now Mason, who is director of audiology professional practices for the American Speech Language Hearing Association, is helping to promote "Listen to Your Buds," a new effort aimed to get parents and elementary-school-aged kids aware of the long-term hearing loss caused by loud music. There's an online game in which kids can crank up the volume on music and find out the decibel level and whether it's unsafe. And there's a series of free noise-appropriate concerts aimed at first and second graders. The first is this Wednesday, September 23, at 10 a.m. at the Glendale, Calif., Civic Auditorium. Nearly 1,000 kids will be rocking out. A second concert follows in New Orleans on November 18.

I won't be at either of those, alas, but I'm ready to follow the group's recommendations on monitoring the volume of children's music:

  • If you can hear an MP3 player from 3 feet away, it's too loud.
    • Many MP3 players don't have volume control indicators. An easy way to set a safe listening level is to crank it up all the way, then back to halfway.
      • Take "listening breaks" from loud music or other sources of loud noise to give the ear a chance to recover.
      • Most children don't need hearing protection, Mason says. Just teaching them to be aware of loud noise and adjust the volume on their MP3 player or iPod is a good start. Her musician clients need more help. She fits them with custom musician's earplugs that don't alter sound fidelity. Even for grownups, it's never too late to protect against hearing loss. If, like me, you just want to go out clubbing every now and again, universal-fit musicians' earplugs cost $10 to $15 and give better sound fidelity than the foam earplugs in drugstores. Sounds as if they'd be good for a middle schooler with an electric guitar, too.

        Is your hearing, or your child's hearing, already in trouble? This hearing loss quiz is a good start to figure out the state of your ears.