Guest blogger Ronda Kaysen: If you think your teen is just not listening, you might be wrong. He actually may not be able to hear you.
One in five teens has at least some hearing loss, according to a new study. The number of kids with slight hearing loss has increased by 30 percent in the past 15 years, and the number of kids with serious hearing loss has increased by a jaw-dropping 77 percent. Experts are pointing their fingers at one likely culprit: iPods and other MP3 players.
Although last week's study, which was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, didn't pinpoint a cause for the spike, an Australian study found that headphones were responsible for a 70 percent increase in hearing loss.
"If you're a parent and your child has an MP3 player, they are basically at risk for hearing loss," says Richard Rosenfeld, a pediatric otolaryngologist and chairman of otolaryngology at Long Island College Hospital and the State University of New York/Downstate Medical Center.
Unlike older styles of headphones (which sat outside the ear), so-called "earbuds" sit much closer to the eardrum, delivering loud noise directly to the eardrum for a long time. Experts say that if you can hear the music when you're standing next to the listener, it's too loud. "The MP3 is a great device to deliver excessive sounds to your eardrums and blow out your ears," notes Rosenfeld.
The MP3 player isn't the only offender, however. There are other loud-noise activities that teens partake in today that can damage their ears, such as going to rock concerts or NASCAR races without wearing earplugs. "We like to immediately jump to, 'It's the iPods we're using,'" says Dr. Brian Fligor, director of diagnostic audiology at Children's Hospital Boston. "It's not just the iPods, but they are a part of it."
Even mild hearing loss can have serious implications for a teen. Noise-induced hearing loss tends to affect soft, high-frequency sounds like "s," "f," "th" and "sh." So a teen might have a hard time understanding basic conversations. He might miss out on important information in the classroom, he might miss the punch line in a joke or he might have trouble following social conversations. In short, hearing loss can affect how a teen performs academically, how he makes friends and how the rest of the world perceives him.
Although mild hearing loss might have no discernible effect on a teen in the short run, it could come to haunt him later. Hearing loss is cumulative, so when a teen who's lost some hearing reaches middle age, he might find himself needing a hearing aid decades before his peers.
The trouble with this type of hearing loss is that it often goes unnoticed, creeping up on a person slowly. A teen might notice ringing in his ears or might have trouble following conversations at a noisy party, but he might not notice that anything's amiss. Frequently, the first sign of hearing loss is behavioral problems (i.e., a note sent home from school that a student stopped attending class, isn't paying attention or seems easily distracted).
If something like that happens to your teen, "go get their hearing checked out," advises Fligor. "It may not be a listening thing -- it may be a hearing thing." Here are some things moms should do to protect their kids' hearing:
Get Their Ears Tested Now, Even If Their Hearing Seems Fine. Fligor says that you should get your kid's hearing checked by an audiologist ASAP, to establish a baseline.
Model Good Behavior. If you use an MP3 player yourself, don't play it for more than an hour at a time, and keep the volume set no higher than 60 percent of the maximum. If you take your kids to concerts, wear earplugs -- and insist that they do, too. If you go to loud events, always wear proper ear protection.
Buy Better 'Buds. Invest in noise-reduction earbuds that drown out background noise so your teen doesn't need to crank the volume so high, advises Rosenfeld. There are also earbuds that have built-in limiters that clip the sound when it goes beyond a certain intensity.
Teach Teens to Respect Their Ears. Hearing loss is permanent. Once hearing's gone, it's gone forever, so help teens understand how crucial it is that they protect the only two ears they'll ever have.