December 06, 2023 5 min read
|How Headphones Work
|Noise-Induced Hearing Loss
|Safe Headphone Habits
|Signs of Hearing Damage
|If Hearing Loss Occurs
Classrooms today are filled with students plugged into headphones. Headphones provide valuable benefits for learning by blocking distractions and letting students focus on educational content and instruction. However, some experts warn that prolonged headphone use poses risks of noise-induced hearing loss, especially among children. As guides in students’ lives, teachers and parents need to understand how hearing can be impacted and how to promote safe listening habits.
To appreciate how headphones could potentially cause hearing damage, it’s important to first understand what types are used and how they work to produce sound. There are three main headphone styles:
These small headphone inserts fit right inside the ear canal. Many come with silicone or foam tips in different sizes for a tighter, more secure fit. Students often favor these for their portability and lightweight feel.
These feature padded earcups that rest comfortably over the ears without fully enclosing them. The speakers inside direct sound right into the ear. Many on-ear models fold inward for easier storage in backpacks and lockers.
Larger, plusher earcups fully surround the ears. This helps immerse listeners in sound and block out external noises. Noise-cancelling over-ear models actively cancel ambient noise using built-in microphones. These are popular for uninterrupted listening.
All headphone styles work through a common process. The headphone jack or internal wireless receiver converts electrical audio signals from the device into sound waves. Mini speakers inside the left and right earcups produce these sound waves that cause air particles to vibrate.
With prolonged exposure, the loud volumes headphones directly delivered to the inner ear can potentially wreak havoc on this intricate hearing process.
Decibels (dB) measure the intensity of sound pressure levels. Sounds under 75 dB are generally considered safe for lengthy exposure. But experts warn that recurrent exposure to noises exceeding 85 dB can permanently damage hair cells in the cochlea.
Unlike many body cells, these specialized hair cells do not regenerate. So the hearing loss stemming from noise-induced cochlear damage is permanent. This condition is called noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL).
NIHL typically manifests first as reduced hearing sensitivity at higher frequency ranges. This makes it difficult to distinguish words clearly against background noise. Additional exposure to loud sounds expands the hearing loss to lower frequencies.
Besides headphones, common NIHL causes include rock concerts, machinery and tools, emergency vehicle sirens, and other continuous loud noises. But with headphones pressed snugly in or over the ears, users may unknowingly expose their cochleas to dangerous decibel levels for far longer than is safe.
The risks of NIHL make it critical for teachers and parents to help students cultivate responsible headphone habits:
By instilling safe listening habits, teachers and parents can help minimize the risks of NIHL in students who use headphones for learning.
It’s also essential to watch and listen for any of the following warning signs that may indicate headphone-related hearing damage:
Since noise-induced hearing loss from headphones develops gradually over time, it is easy to dismiss subtle symptoms like a little muffling or tinnitus now and then. But promptly addressing any hearing changes improves the prognosis and allows early intervention.
If you suspect hearing damage or loss in a student:
While headphones are an extremely useful tool in education, we must help students harness their power responsibly. By internalizing safe listening habits and acting quickly if hearing loss occurs, we can work together to protect students’ lifelong hearing health.
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