How Loud Toys Can Damage Children’s Hearing
Published: December 18, 2023
The American Academy of Audiology audiologists are warning parents to be extra cautious when selecting toys that make noise this holiday season. Recognizing that tiny ears are particularly susceptible to hearing damage and children are particularly fond of holding items up to their ears, it is important to check toy noise levels before purchasing them.
“Many parents don’t realize the permanent damage a simple toy can inflict on a child’s hearing,” says Bopanna Ballachanda, Ph.D., president of the American Academy of Audiology. “When we fail to protect a child’s hearing, the result can be irreversible hearing loss.” The inner ear contains delicate hair cells which do not regrow. Once these are damaged by noise, the result is permanent hearing loss.
According to the National Institute on Deafness and Other Communication Disorders, about two to three of every 1,000 children in the U.S. are born with a detectable level of hearing loss in one or both ears. That same report finds that approximately 15 percent of all adults in the U.S. (37.5 million) have some form of hearing loss. The number is up from 14.6 percent in 2019.
While age is a significant driver of hearing loss, exposure to loud noise is also a large factor, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. The report states that the average person is born with about 16,000 hair cells within their cochlea. These cells allow the brain to detect sound and, once destroyed from loud noise exposure, they cannot be repaired. “Noise can also damage the auditory nerve that carries electrical signals to the brain,” Ballachanda adds. These impacts also affect hearing issues over time.
“Parents should just steer clear of toys that make a lot of noise,” he says. “You can’t assume that the manufacturer has tested them to ensure hearing safety, especially when children are inclined to hold toys much closer to themselves than adults would.”
“It’s important to note that the 85-decibel level threshold that the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health recommends is for people with long exposure to the sound for eight hours or more,” Ballachanda explained. “Having said that, parents and anyone buying toys for children need to be aware of loud noises, particularly toys that have loud bursts—cap guns, popping balloons, air horns, etc.”
A study released in January 2017 by researchers with the University of Alberta in Canada, determined the noise levels of popping balloons. They studied popping them with a pin, blowing them up until they ruptured, and crushing them until they burst. The ruptured balloons clocked in at 168 decibels, four decibels louder than a 12-gauge shotgun.
Ballachanda advises parents to use phone apps to test the sound levels of toys before buying them. “If they come in at 85 decibels or higher when holding your phone microphone near them like your child would hold the toy near their ear, don’t buy them. It isn’t worth the risk,” he says. “Remember, the louder the sound, the faster the damage and damage continues with exposure.”
While hearing loss numbers are rising in adults in the U.S., the definitive total number of children with some type of hearing loss is unknown and many cases go undiagnosed or misdiagnosed. “A child with just minimal hearing loss can be missing 50 percent of classroom discussion,” Ballachanda says. These children will need to use extra effort to hear what is being said and they often become distracted and exhausted by the end of the day. These characteristics can be mistaken for learning disabilities when what the child needs is the management of the hearing loss, typically in the form of hearing aids and other assistive listening devices.
Lack of hearing can lead to behavioral issues, lack of focus, and even depression in children. Children with hearing loss often don’t recognize that they can’t hear and parents don’t always know the signs.
“Loud toys aren’t just annoying to parents, they can be a danger to children,” adds Ballachanda. “Parents should exercise caution when buying toys with sound, including video games. With toys and games where you can turn the sound down, set the sound at an acceptable, non-harmful level and teach children to keep them at that level. Also, be vigilant about any signs that may indicate your child is having difficulty with their hearing.” If you are concerned about your child’s hearing, it is worth having a comprehensive hearing test.