“But they won’t have fun if the music isn’t loud!” This was the response from a parent after I had the audacity to suggest we turn down the music at an elementary school outing. The children had everything at their disposal for the makings of a good time: ice skates, game tokens, snacks and soda, and their friends. Yet this mother and most of the others – I was clearly in the minority – somehow felt that unless we had to shout to be heard, the children couldn’t possibly have fun.
This experience inspired me to do some research about the impact of noise in children’s lives.
Studies show that noise pollution is correlated with hearing loss which in turn impacts speech, language, and cognitive, social, and emotional development. Noise is also correlated with sleep disorders, increased blood pressure, poor digestion, slower learning, increased irritability, and increased aggression.
Would this one party ruin their ears and cause this host of problems? Almost certainly not.
The Problem with Noise Pollution
However, hearing loss due to noise is cumulative and permanent. You may think that no harm is being done by loud sounds since your hearing seems to return to normal once you leave the noise of, for example, a concert.
In reality, however, each exposure causes a little damage; and the louder a noise is, the less time it takes for damage to occur. By teaching your children that noise is an integral part of fun, you increase the chance that they will choose to turn up the volume when they are the ones running the show. After all, who doesn’t want to have as much fun as possible?
It is important to distinguish between sound, which is one extremely important way children learn about their world, and noise, which becomes a threat to health and well-being.
Parents get to define for their young children what sound is and what noise is. It starts with the toys you buy, the volume of music and television you listen to, and the loudness of other sounds to which you expose your children. Many toys are loud enough to harm your children’s hearing – even many rattles and learning devices. Current regulations merely legislate that toys be quieter than a jackhammer!
Therefore, before you allow your child to play with a toy, you need to test it yourself; if the toy is the least bit annoying when shaken or played right next to your ear, it is too loud for your baby/child whose arms are much shorter and whose hearing is probably more sensitive than yours.
So What’s a Parent to Do???
- Observe and rescue – Many infants and young children hold their ears, wince, or step back when exposed to noise (or what you might consider sound) – reactions that indicate the noise is too loud or overwhelming. Eventually they may get used to it, but this does not mean it is safe. Psychologically tuning out noise does not mean that physiologically hearing is not being affected. Avoid or minimize what noise you can, and rescue your children when they react negatively to noise.
- Model sound not noise – If you blast your stereo, TV, or video games, so will your children. If you keep sound levels moderate, your children are more likely to keep levels moderate also. If you think loud is “cool,” your children will grow up thinking loud is “cool.” You can show your children you are willing to walk away from noise or are willing to protect yourself and them – for example, by wearing ear protection at loud movies or concerts.
- Listen when children talk about loud noise – Reflect back to your children what they are saying so they can clarify their own feelings about noise and how it affects them.
- Discuss noise and the damage it does – Noise-induced hearing loss occurs slowly, so it is not obvious. Help your children learn that exposure to noise over a long period of time (e.g. TV, iPod, computer volumes turned up) causes permanent damage and that the louder the noise, the more damage occurs. Ask questions about the perceived advantages of noise. Certainly blocking out conversation in awkward social situations and tuning out thinking with loud music after a rough day can be perceived as advantageous. Listen as children come up with their reasons for preferring to turn up the volume. Then brainstorm safer alternatives.
- Take advantage of (peace and) quiet – Family dinner is a great time to enjoy each other and share stories of the day without the distraction of TV or phones. Improved communication, vocabulary, and reading skills are some of the many benefits of eating together.
- Find ways to enjoy quiet family time – By turning off the outside electronic noises, you can tune in to the natural sounds in your environment. You can walk in the woods listening for animals scurrying, birds chirping, and water running. You can listen inside your house to the noise of the clocks, the heating system going on and off, or even the rush of the traffic outside the window. Play games with or without quiet music in the background. Encourage your children to come up with other ideas for quiet activities.
- Look for correlations between noise (or sound) and behavior – Your children may insist they study better or sleep better or do whatever better using an earbud or having the TV on, but do their grades, sleep habits, etc. really back that up? If not, it is time to set limits on the amount of time or volume of sound.
- Avoid “noise confusion” – Does the TV really need to be on in the background while you are handling the daily household chores? Are there competing TV shows spilling over from one room of the house to the next? What about one person’s music, another’s TV show, and a YouTube video simultaneously streaming on the computer? Sometimes just getting rid of one source of sound (even if it is not loud) can make the atmosphere less stressful.
- Monitor noise levels – Is the noise from the iPod, TV, computer, or musical instrument too loud? A good rule of thumb: if you need to shout from three feet away to be heard, it is way too loud. Report to your children’s doctor any ringing or buzzing in the ear or muffled sound of speech they may mention.
Five million children in the United States suffer from some degree of noise-induced hearing loss. And more noise-induced hearing loss and resultant effects are predicted to show up in young adulthood.
Do everything you can to protect your children from becoming part of this preventable statistic. Start when your children are young, with the toys they have and the situations you allow them to be in, and continue to be vigilant throughout their childhood and teenage years by offering education and guidance about noise levels.By Karen Eble, Certified Parenting Educator
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