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Noise, Toys, Girls and Boys!: How Turning Down the Volume can make a Difference

Noise, Toys, Girls and Boys!: How Turning Down the Volume can make a Difference

Published: 06/15/2008 by Deborah Ranson, M. A.

» Health and Wellness

“Beep!  Beep! Beep!” sounds the alarm in the all too early hours of the morning.  We start our day with a jolt of sound to wake us up and get us going.  And all day long, we are hearing and listening to the world around us.  Our ears just bring it all in and we get a sense of safety and security from the ‘soundscapes’ around us as we move through our day.

We hear the sound of the baby laughing as another day of wonder arrives.  She gurgles and coos with delight as you give “raspberries” on her tummy or play with your voice to make your own silly sounds.   The kettle sings and you can hear the muffled voices of the other children in the house as they move about, getting themselves ready for another busy day.

There is no escaping it.  The world of sound surrounds us and while many sounds bring comfort, sometimes sound can be a bit overwhelming, especially when there are many things going on at once, like the television, conversation and noisy toys.  Sometimes, sound can be dangerous and destructive.  For these hazardous sounds, while there may be no trouble hearing them, what many people don’t realize is how much damage they can do, especially to young ears.

Currently there is much research being done into the effects of loud noise on children.  It has been found that loud noise can affect learning and communication.  The incidence of hearing loss among children is rising.  It has been documented that ”… over the last 10 years the percentage of 2nd graders with hearing loss has increased 2.8 times; hearing loss in 8th graders has increased over 4 times” (Montgomery and Fujikawa, 1996).  Other researchers are developing programs designed just for kids to not only teach them how to recognize dangerous sound levels, but to help them change their attitudes and behaviours towards protecting their hearing, and how to use hearing protection devices properly.  The hopeful news is that hearing loss due to loud sounds (referred to as noise-induced hearing loss, or N-IHL) is 100% preventable.

We hear from birth

Our inner ears are fully formed at birth.  The delicate hair cells, supporting, cells, and minute workings of the inner ear, or cochlea,  are completely functional from the moment we take our first breath.  Unlike other cells, such as skin cells, or liver cells, the delicate hair cells in the inner ear do not grow back or regenerate if they are damaged.  Normal, healthy hair cells stand straight and tall so they can receive incoming information from the outside world.  When there is damage, they are bent or missing and are unable to receive signals from the outside world.  Since we cannot turn off our ear, they hear everything around us so our ears record our ‘lifetime dose’ of sound.  It all adds up.  In other words, our ability (or inability) to hear reflects how we treat our ears when it comes to exposure to dangerously loud sounds.  If they are abused by listening to loud sounds for extended periods of time, they will eventually begin to function abnormally and the result is permanent hearing loss.   A hearing loss can greatly affect one’s quality of life.

Noisy toys can be hazardous

When it comes to noise in the home, there are lots of sources.  One common source of noise is the toys children play with.  While toys are an important part of childhood development, it is also important to be aware of the noise some toys make and how that noise may impact your child’s hearing.

Toys are regulated by Health Canada’s Hazardous Products Act which specifies how loud toys can be. The Canadian Association for Speech Language Pathologists and Audiologists (CASLPA) has worked with the National Coalition for Noisy Toys to get the message out that noise from toys can damage children’s hearing.   The experts are calling for reforms of the Hazardous Products Act which would significantly reduce the maximum allowable noise level for toys sold in Canada.
Currently, toys that have a maximum loudness level of 100 dBA (decibels) are permitted under the Hazardous Products Act.  If this level were to be calculated in a similar fashion to that used for workplace noise standards, this dangerous noise level would not be permitted for adults for more than 15minutes, based on an 8-hour work day.  In the US, the maximum permitted loudness for toys is 80 dBA.  It is possible that the noise levels of some toys such as whistles or cap guns can exceed the regulated maximum levels and cause permanent damage to a child’s hearing.  In some cases the noise exposure from the toy can leave the child with tinnitus, or ringing in the ears. 

Tips for Safe Play
The Canadian Association of Speech Language Pathologists and Audiologists and the National Coalition for Noisy Toys recommend the following guidelines:

Purchase toys that have on/off switches

  • Purchase toys that have a volume control
  • Check for noise level labels on toys
  • Listen to the toy yourself before making a purchase
  • Reduce time your child spends playing with noisy toys
  • Remove the batteries from noisy toys
  • Teach your children about potential danger to their ears from noisy toys and noisy activities
  •  Supervise children when they play with toys that emit sounds.
  • Discuss with children the proper way to handle their toys.  Toys should be played with at arms length, not at face or ear level
  • Turn down the volume of toys with headsets (this includes personal stereos)       
  • Purchase alternate toys such as books and puzzles that help develop language and literacy skills

Consumers are becoming more educated and are making better choices which will help protect their child’s hearing.

What about tweens and teens?

More than ever before, we are a society that is constantly “plugged in and turned on”.  With the miniaturization of electronics it is possible to take our music and our games with us.  Listening habits have changed and it is changing how we communicate with each other.  Marcia Epstein, professor in the Faculty of Communication and Culture has explored the implications of too much noise and has found that the use of personal music players can create as sense of isolation which may lead to difficulties with interpersonal communication.  Children who routinely use personal music players may have “fewer opportunities to develop habitual skills like cooperation and might be less able to deal effectively with situations where they have to act as a group” (U Magazine, Vol. 3, No. 3).

Teens and tweens are a challenging group to reach as they are often caught up in trying to become more independent and find out where they fit in socially.  Many love music and use personal music players for extended periods of time in ways that we have not seen before, especially since they can download literally hundreds of hours of music and can keep in touch with their friend via text messaging.  They also think they are invincible and that nothing will ever happen to their ears. The earbuds they use fit deep into the ears, but this creates a small space in which the sound pressure can rise creating a greater volume than if the sound were coming from a speaker sitting on a nearby table.

One study found that there is a ‘disconnect’ that teens have when it comes to music and the fact that loud music can permanently damage their hearing.  A web-based study designed by the researchers of Massachusetts Eye and Ear Infirmary, Harvard Medical School, and the Harvard School of Public Health was posted on MTV.com for three days.  Just over 9,600 teens completed the survey.   It was found that 61% of young people attending concerts, and 43% of those who gone to a club, experienced tinnitus, or ringing in the ears following the noise exposure to loud music.  Only 11% of respondents had used protective ear plugs.  While these statistics may seem disheartening, there was some good news.  Sixty-six percent said they could be motivated to use hearing protection if there were more aware of the potential for permanent hearing loss (Harvard Gazette Archives).

With a greater awareness and increased knowledge about the dangers of noisy toys, lifestyle and listening habits, parents and kids are taking steps to protect their hearing.  With some education and guidance, it is possible to teach children to take responsibility for their hearing and recognize when to turn it down, when to walk away, and when to use hearing protection.

Hearing Resources
The Dangerous Decibels™ classroom program is a great multi-science class.  Funded by a grant from the National Institute of Health, Dangerous Decibels ™ was created as a result of the collaborative efforts between the Oregon Health and Science University and the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry.  The goal of the program is to reduce the incidence and prevalence of Noise-Induced Hearing Loss (N-IHL) and tinnitus (ringing in the ears, and early indicator of hearing loss) by increasing knowledge and changing attitudes and behaviors of school age kids.  Discover just how important it can be to “Turn it down!” with the help of interactive activities and scientific tools, students will measure sound, learn about decibels, find out how loud is too loud and how sound can damage tiny cells in the ear, and discover three easy ways to protect their hearing. www.dangerousdecibels.org

Teaching Curriculum Accessible Online

Surveys and Resources

Additional Studies