Riding on the subway, jogging down the street, walking through campus — everywhere you go, you see people using earbuds. It’s not just adults, either: Kids are even more plugged-in than adults. But are earbuds hurting their hearing?

“If children wear earbuds for too long and too loud, it can cause permanent hearing loss. Not tomorrow, or next week but in the years to come," says Debbie Abel, Au.D., an audiologist and senior specialist in practice management at the American Academy of Audiology. "Use them wisely and not for extended periods of time. Give your ears a break."

Richard M. Tempero, MD, PhD, director of the Lymphatic Research Laboratory and staff otolaryngologist at Boys Town National Research Hospital in Omaha, Nebraska, says earbud usage is safe for children, provided the sound level is appropriate.

“Noise-induced hearing loss is a function of loudness and exposure time,” says Tempero. “Loudness is expressed in decibels. Normal conversation is about 50 decibels, which is safe for long periods of time, factory noise is 80 decibels — safe for an hour — and jet engines are 130 decibels, which can cause irreversible hearing loss after only seconds.” Personal devices, such as phones and MP3 players, can generate about 100 to 110 decibels depending on the product and the speaker in the earbud, according to Tempero.

“Earbud use could cause noise-induced hearing loss if played at greater than 80 percent volume for hours a day, day after day, although most people would find this uncomfortable,” he says.

A good rule of thumb for safety: “Listening at 50 percent of the device capacity for less than two hours daily is probably a conservative estimate that would avoid any risk of noise-induced hearing loss,” he says. “Watch out for those situations with background noise that might tempt one to increase the volume — pre-existing hearing loss, airline travel, lawn mower use, etc. The solution? Set a safe volume and appropriate time limit.”

How does hearing loss happen?

The ear is divided into three parts,the outer ear, the middle ear and the inner ear. The inner ear has delicate hair cells, whose job is to send nerve signals to the brain. These hair cells vibrate when sending those signals, and loud noises can damage them. This may cause a ringing in the ears according to the Better Hearing Institute (BHI) in Washington, DC. 

Alternatives to earbuds

If your child listens to music a lot, consider having custom earbuds fit. The listener can hear better without turning the volume up as loud. Or use an alternative to earbuds. BHI suggests these options:

  • Earmuff stereo headphones: The soft plastic cushions, filled with foam or liquid, form a seal against noise and eliminate the need to turn up the volume. Wipe the cushions with a damp rag if they get dirty and replace them if they’re stiff, worn, cut or torn.
  • Sound-isolating earphones with ear tips: These earphones do exactly what they say they do — isolate sound — so the volume can be set lower. The ear tips may be cleaned as needed, but if they become brittle, replace them.
  • Noise canceling headphones: These do a great job of canceling ambient noise, like the background roar on an airplane, so the listener can hear better without having to crank up the volume.