Noise poses a serious threat to all, but it's particularly important to pay attention to the noise surrounding children today. Studies have shown that about 14 percent of children between 12 to 19 years old have hearing loss in one or both ears (JAMA. 2010 Aug 18;304(7):772). From infant toys to video arcades to headphones for electronics, children are bombarded with sounds. Protecting children's hearing is critical, so consider these facts when choosing toys and activities that promote safe listening.
Noise affects more than children's hearing abilities. Children exposed to ongoing loud levels of noise do not learn as well. A landmark study in 1975 found that the reading scores of students whose classrooms were located close to elevated train tracks were one year lower than those of students with classes held at a quiet area of the campus (Environ Behav. 1975;7(4):517).
Risks to children's hearing from dangerous noise levels are everywhere. Most people today are aware that listening to headphones at loud levels can be harmful, but dangerous noise levels are everywhere. Video arcade sound levels can exceed 110 dB. Some home computer games and stereo systems can produce levels as high as 135 dB, and children often use headphones with these systems. Certain toys, even those for babies, have been found to produce sounds over 110 dB, which is comparable to the levels found in power drills. Just a few minutes a day with toys at these sound levels is enough to permanently damage a child's hearing over time.
Toy safety standards are not adequate to protect children's hearing. The American Society of Testing and Materials (ASTM) mandates that sound-pressure levels produced by toys shall not exceed 85 dB at 50 cm (19 inches) from the surface of the toy. But when a child holds a toy close to his or her ear, the noise level will be much louder, presenting a danger to hearing. As most children play with toys close to their face and have shorter arms than adults, consider how your child will be playing with a toy in the actual setting before purchasing the item.
Children can be exposed to hazardous noise levels from birth. It's not all about pre-teens and their headphones. Certain rattles, squeaky toys, toy telephones, and musical toys have been found to produce sounds over 110 dB, the same level as power tools. When a power tool at this sound level is used at work, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OHSA) requires the use of ear protection. Infants and young children, however, are just given these toys, commencing their early exposure to potentially unsafe sound levels.
Noisy toys can cause permanent hearing loss over time. Noise from toys, in addition to the other recreational and environmental sounds that children are exposed to today, can cause noise-induced hearing loss. This risk to hearing loss accumulate over time. Noise-induced hearing loss is permanent but preventable. Parents must listen to the sound of a toy before purchasing it and encourage children to turn down the volume on headphones. Parents can use sound meter phone applications to measure the sound produced by toys. However, a simple rule of thumb is: “If it sounds too loud, it probably is.”
Help children make better recreation choices that consider their hearing. Today's entertainment scenes and toy options seem to encourage children (and adults) to listen to louder and louder sounds. Fortunately, there are many quiet ways for children to have fun and for parents and caregivers to enjoy time with them. For example, reading to young children helps develop their reading skills and fosters a close relationship between parent and child. Toys with sounds do not have to be completely avoided. Look for low-volume, educational computer games, puzzles, construction sets, and board games that allow children to learn while playing in less noisy settings. Visit libraries and museums, and take walks in the park. Finally, promote the use of ear plugs and ear protection when attending concerts, festivals, firework shows, and other events that will have loud sounds.