It’s important for adults to understand what sounds are too loud for kids and what to do about it. Hearing damage (from exposure to loud sounds) is permanent – but we can help prevent it.
Three steps to protect your children’s ears (and your ears) from loud sounds
- Check how loud the sound is. Get a loudness reading or use the 3-feet test (explained below)
- Cutback if it’s too loud. Turn the volume down, move away from the loud sound, or limit how long you are close to it.
- Cover your ears if you can’t get away from the sound (or are choosing to stay close). Proper ear protection can drop the level to a safe zone.
How loud is too loud?
Determining if sound is too loud is like checking for a fever. There will be times where you’re alerted to a problem but just need to observe to make sure it doesn’t get worse. Then, there’s situations where you’ll need to take immediate action.
In technical terms, the “safe sound” threshold is 85dB (Decibels). Any sounds below 85dB won’t cause damage. Above 85dB is like running a fever. The good news is 85dB is safe for around 8 hours but the time decreases quickly the louder the sound is. 100 dB, the level of a concert or crowd at some sporting events, is only safe for about 15 minutes for both children and adults.
How to check sound loudness
The easiest way is to download a mobile device app (it may be called an SPL meter or loudness meter). These are pretty easy to use. Place your device by your own ear, your child’s ear, and by the source of the sound to see what number it reads. Not all apps are accurate. Apps are more accurate when using a calibrated external mic (like the Dayton Audio I-MM6). Two free iOS apps I like are NIOSH and Decibel Meter.
Another option is a standalone SPL meter like BAFX Decibel/Sound Meter. If you’re interested in learning more about SPL meters (or how to use one for a science project!) check out What are the loud noises at your school?
What sounds are kids exposed to that are too loud?
The 3-feet test: If you are three feet from someone and need to raise your voice for them to hear you, you’re probably around 85dB. If you have to yell to be heard, you’re in a sound danger zone.
According to The Better Hearing Institute, sounds that are risks for causing hearing damage in young children are:
- Transportation noise (subways, trains, airplanes, snowmobiles, etc.)
- Home appliances (stereo music equipment, power tools, lawn maintenance equipment, hair dryers, etc.)
- Loud toys
- Some music concerts and live events
The Center for Hearing and Communication adds that some every day environments can be too loud for kids. Playgrounds and video arcades can reach 115 dB (as loud as a rock concert!) At school, cafeterias, hallways and even school bells (at close distance) can be well above the safe level. (We look at this closer in What are the loud sounds in your school?)
The Sight & Hearing Association issues an annual list of toys that are louder than 85dB. Here are 2017’s unsafe toys.
Balloons popping (when tightly inflated) can cause hearing damage after one or two exposures. Up close it can be as loud as a gunshot.
Earbuds are a major source of hearing damage. Here we look at teen hearing loss.
What kind of hearing protection should I use?
For infants and young children, ear plugs can be a choking hazard and should be avoided. Earmuff style is preferable.
Don’t forget your own earplugs or earmuffs! If it’s too loud for children, it’s too loud for adults, too. There are no live sound police so it’s especially important when you’re at an event with live sound. Sometimes the sound level creeps up over time and you may not even notice it happening.