New Hearing Protection Campaign Targets Tweens and Their Parents
Spend some time with a “tween”—the trendy term for a kid between the ages of 8 and 12—and you'll soon discover that the noise level of his or her normal, daily life can be pretty loud. There are alarm clocks and school bells; gym and band practice; lunch in the cafeteria; after-school sports practice; television, video games, and MP3 players; and a commute by car, bus, or subway train. And that’s just on a school day. On weekends, the average tween also may be exposed to the sounds of movies; sporting events; concerts; home, yard, and workshop chores; and seasonal activities such as snowmobiling, boating, and hunting. Many of these sounds reach decibel levels that may cause noise-induced hearing loss, or NIHL, with prolonged exposure.
“Noise is everywhere, and children and adults alike are at risk of hearing loss from overexposure,” said James F. Battey, Jr., M.D., Ph.D., director of the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders (NIDCD). Already, more than 26 million American adults have experienced NIHL from work or leisure time activities.
What Is NIHL?
A decibel is a unit for measuring sound. The softest sound healthy ears can hear is 0 decibels—near total silence. An increase of 10 means that a sound is 10 times more intense, or powerful, than the first sound. To your ears, it sounds twice as loud. A whisper is 30 decibels, a normal conversation is 60 decibels, and a shout directly into your ear measures 120 decibels. Noise-induced hearing loss occurs when small sensory “hair cells” in the inner ear are damaged by noises that exceed safe decibel levels over time. Our hair cells convert sound energy into electrical signals that travel to the brain. Once damaged, they cannot grow back.
The higher the decibel level, the less time is needed before NIHL can occur. Our hair cells can be injured instantly by an intense blast of noise, such as the pop of a firecracker, or gradually from prolonged and repeated exposure to excessive noise. Researchers who study hearing loss in the workplace have found that a person who is exposed to noise levels at 85 decibel or higher for a prolonged period of time is at risk for hearing loss. For this reason, these workers are required to wear hearing protectors, such as earplugs or earmuffs, while they are on the job. Many devices that children use today have noise levels much higher than 85 decibels. For example, an MP3 player at maximum level is roughly 105 decibels. That’s 100 times more intense than 85 decibels! Scientists recommend no more than 15 minutes of unprotected exposure to sounds that are 100 decibels. In addition, regular exposure to sounds at 110 decibels for more than one minute risks permanent hearing loss.
Symptoms of NIHL often develop gradually over time. As a person ages, sounds may become distorted or muffled, and it may be difficult to understand speech. Someone with NIHL may not even be aware of the loss, but it can be detected with a hearing test. Excessive noise also may cause tinnitus, a ringing or buzzing sound in the ear. Similar to NIHL, tinnitus can be permanent.
In October 2008, the NIDCD launched a new national public education campaign to help prevent NIHL in young people by focusing on tweens. Called It’s a Noisy Planet. Protect Their Hearing, the campaign is designed to educate parents of tweens about the causes and prevention of NIHL so that they, in turn, can encourage their children to develop safe listening habits that can help maintain healthy hearing for life. The Noisy Planet campaign also will help parents and other adults adopt the same practices to protect their own hearing.
Features of the Noisy Planet Campaign
The Noisy Planet Web site is the centerpiece of the campaign, offering information and activities for parents and tweens as well as for communities, partnering organizations, and the media. In addition to providing basic information about the causes and prevention of NIHL, the site offers tips to parents on how to recognize when a child’s hearing is at risk, how to select ear protectors and take other steps to reduce noise exposure, and how to make use of the many teachable moments to discuss healthy listening habits with their tween. Parents can sign up for e-bulletins that will update them about new site content and research advances in NIHL prevention.
The TweenZone page contains interactive information about noise and hearing loss tailored specifically for 8- to 12-year-olds. The Web page includes tip sheets, videos, games, an interactive sound ruler, and “noise in the news” features. One page on hearing protectors offers suggestions on how tweens can respond if their friends ask why they wear earplugs. It also suggests ways they can actually start a trend in hearing protection. The site encourages tweens and their parents to protect their hearing through three simple steps:
- Blocking the noise by wearing earplugs or earmuffs.
- Avoiding the noise by walking away or limiting time spent in noisy environments.
- Turning down the sound on the growing number of tools, toys, and gadgets that add to the cumulative noise level of daily life.
Why Noisy Planet Focuses on Tweens
The effect of loud noise on hearing has been a primary area of focus for the NIDCD since its beginning in 1988. According to the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), NIHL is the second most commonly reported occupational disease and the most expensive disability for military and federal workers' compensation. Since 1999, the NIDCD has led WISE EARS!®, a national campaign to prevent NIHL among the general public and workers. In collaboration with NIOSH and nearly 90 partner organizations, the NIDCD has distributed thousands of publications each year about NIHL and its prevention. Noisy Planet is a continuation of the NIDCD’s efforts to draw public attention to the risks of NIHL and how we can better protect ourselves and our families.
The NIDCD selected tweens as the focus of its new Noisy Planet campaign for two reasons. First, tweens are at an age when they are developing as individuals. They are becoming more independent and are starting to make some of their own choices. These choices include how they spend their leisure time, such as listening to music or attending sports events, and how they help around the home, such as mowing the lawn. Tweens also are developing their own attitudes and habits related to their health.
The second reason Noisy Planet focuses on tweens is to complement existing NIHL campaigns. In recent years, hearing health advocacy groups and the media have raised awareness about the potential risk of hearing loss in young people due to the increased use of MP3 players and other personal stereo systems. The American Speech–Language–Hearing Association, the American Academy of Audiology, the House Ear Institute, and other organizations are promoting national campaigns to encourage safe music listening habits in young children or in teens and young adults. (Read more about these campaigns under “Beyond NIDCD: News from Other Organizations About NIHL.”) NIDCD’s Noisy Planet campaign complements these efforts by emphasizing the multiple sources of potentially damaging noise and by promoting healthy hearing habits in tweens. In combination, these programs will provide growing children with a continuous and reinforcing message about the need to protect their hearing.
The NIDCD hopes that, through Noisy Planet, tweens will learn to protect their hearing from noise as naturally as they brush their teeth to prevent cavities. “Our hearing needs to last us a lifetime, so it’s more important than ever that we teach children to protect their hearing,” said Dr. Battey.
Why Young Ears Are at Risk
Unfortunately, many young people aren't yet aware of NIHL or how they can prevent it. In a survey conducted on the MTV Web site, 61 percent of the teens and young adults who responded had experienced tinnitus or hearing impairment after attending a concert. (Tinnitus is a persistent ringing, buzzing, or roaring in the ears after exposure to too much noise.) However, only 16 percent of them reported that they had heard, read, or seen any information on NIHL. Only 14 percent of them had used earplugs.
Playing personal stereo systems too loudly poses a well-publicized risk to young ears, but so does prolonged exposure to the noise level of many other activities popular with tweens. The cheering of fans at a college basketball game, for example, has been recorded as high as 120 decibels—the equivalent of a thunderclap. Movies in theaters can reach the upper 90 decibels. Even school-related noises exceed safe decibel levels. Sharon Kujawa, of the Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, has measured the decibel level of middle school cafeterias to be 85 to 90 decibels. Carrying on a conversation in a normal voice becomes difficult when the surrounding noise level reaches 75 decibels. You can just imagine the escalating noise level when kids are trying to talk to each other during lunch. For more information, visit “How loud is too loud?”.
The risk of NIHL extends to tweens living in all geographic areas. Although we often think of rural areas as being quieter than the city, people who live there are especially at risk for hearing loss, most likely due to exposure to farm machinery and other related noises. In a study of people between the ages of 8 and 92 from one rural Iowa county, most were found to have significant hearing loss.
Noisy Planet Feedback
Initial public response to the Noisy Planet campaign has been overwhelmingly positive. Parents have voiced their support of the campaign, pointing to the many instances when their children seem to be exposed to excessive noise. As one concerned parent wrote, “I’m constantly frustrated by how loud the music is when I pick our kids up from after-school care at their elementary school. As someone with noise-induced hearing loss myself, I’m really frustrated by the lack of awareness.”
The number of visitors to the Noisy Planet Web site continues to grow. After just three months, visits to the site had tripled. The most frequently visited pages include the Noise and Hearing Loss page, the TweenZone page, and the online order page.
Noisy Planet Next Steps
To expand campaign outreach, the NIDCD is partnering with other national organizations that can help spread the word about the Noisy Planet message. Public service announcements promoting Noisy Planet and its prevention message should soon hit the airwaves. The NIDCD also will be taking its prevention message on the road to reach tweens directly. Representatives of the institute plan to visit local schools, churches, and health fairs to talk with tweens about NIHL prevention and will sponsor exhibits at kid-oriented venues.
You can order Noisy Planet materials online.