Teenage ears are increasingly being studied and the new research reveals an alarming trend: nearly one in five American teens test positive for hearing damage.
Much of the damage is caused by excess noise. More doctors and school band directors are urging kids to take precautions and, in some cases, are providing earplugs. Yet experts feel their messages are being undermined by an “uncool” stigma similar to those that once impeded the use of bike helmets, shin guards and sunscreen.
The country's next generation of music educators now being trained at colleges and universities are learning that their future lesson plans must convey the importance of students protecting their hearing during rehearsals and live performances. Still, officials say, even the most vigilant parents are usually unaware of the need for their children to take precautions.
Chimene Pellar, who's daughter plays in a Chicago area highschool band, said that while she’s thrilled that her three music-loving teens enjoy the band, she became alarmed when she learned that Sophia is often in pain after playing her flute close to her fellow musicians.
“I had never thought of it at all ... and she has been playing the flute since she was in fourth grade,” said Pellar, who is herself a physician. “I also have concerns when I walk by my kids when they have their earbuds in and I can still hear their music. And the longer they listen, the louder it seems to get.”
Audiologists examining teen hearing loss say high-decibel music from instruments, concerts and earbuds can harm the hair cells in the ear’s cochlea, leading to cumulative hearing damage that is irreversible.
“We’re seeing a rise in the number of adolescents with hearing loss, which is not a surprise when you look at our society, which has gotten busier, nosier and overstimulated,” said Dr. Henry Ou, who studies children's hearing at Seattle Children’s Hospital.
“Sound is just energy, and when it’s delivered at a high amplitude, it can cause damage,” Ou said.
The National Association for Music Education encourages teachers and band directors to address the dangers of noise related hearing loss during classes and rehearsals by, for example, ensuring that students don't perform at high volume levels for an extended time.
“It’s something music educators talk to their students about all the time, and one of those issues where the band directors are actually ahead of mom and dad in being concerned about the kids,” said Michael Butera, the association’s executive director and chief executive officer.
While music teachers can encourage and model safe behaviour, Butera said, requiring student musicians to wear earplugs is another matter altogether.
Teachers “don’t have the power of the school boards or the states, and the first time you talk about any regulations or mandates, everyone goes nuts,” Butera said. “But it’s important for teachers to be aware of the hearing loss issue and for them to be able to discuss it with their students.”
At Barrington High School, band director Randy Karon said he frequently talks to his students about the need to be vigilant in protecting their hearing, both at rehearsals and performances. He also encourages them to think about outside the school as well.
“My general rule is, if your ear feels uncomfortable at any time, put a pair of earplugs in,” said Karon, who keeps a large jar in the band room stocked with the standard-style foam earplugs for his students.
After decades of playing trumpet and directing student musicians, Karon said he also is keenly aware of mistakes he made in the past protecting his own hearing.
“Music is my livelihood, and if I can’t hear, I’m in trouble,” he said.