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Earbuds risk teens' hearing

Monday - 10/8/2012, 5:48am  ET

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Pamela Buethe, Director of Audiology at the Children's National Medical Centers' Speech and Hearing Center, conducts a hearing test on Kyle Frank of Pasadena, Md. (Emily Hartman/Children's National Medical Center)

Paula Wolfson, wtop.com

WASHINGTON - The days of parent-kid wars about loud music may be a thing of the past, thanks largely to the growth of iPods and other digital audio players.

But experts wonder if all those hours spent listening through headphones and earbuds are a risk.

The technology is too new for any hard data. But there is growing concern that kids listening at high volume today will face hearing problems tomorrow.

Danger signs are already present. Researchers say almost 20 percent of teens have some form of hearing loss. And the CDC says 12.5 percent of children and adolescents between 6 and 19 years of age have suffered permanent damage to their hearing from excessive exposure to noise.

Pamela Buethe, director of audiology at the Hearing and Speech Center at Children's National Medical Center, says parents need to talk to their kids about the dangers of listening to loud music with headphones.

"They have to sit down and have a conversation with their children about 'This is the boundary, this is the maximum volume you can have," she says.

Headphones should never be used at the highest volume level, Buethe says, even for just five minutes. That's especially true for kids who are already experiencing problems due to childhood ear infections.

Kyle Frank, 14, of Pasadena, Md. (pictured), suffered damage to his right ear as the result of an infection when he was just seven months old.

During a hearing test with Buethe at Children's National, he acknowledges he sometimes listens to music on his phone that is so loud, the phone displays an alert. When that happens, he says he just listens to one song.

That sets off alarm bells for the audiologist. Buethe explains that loud sudden bursts of noise are especially dangerous.

"Our MP3 players or any type of music players that we have now, when they are at the maximum loudness, can cause permanent hearing loss," she says.

She says it's crucial to keep the volume down

"A good rule of thumb is, if somebody has to shout to get your attention or for you to hear them when you are wearing headphones, you're causing risk."

Noise causes hearing loss by damaging the sensory hairs found in the inner ear. It's a cumulative process, meaning the problem develops over time, so it may be decades before the full impact is known.

Buethe draws a parallel with the factory workers who said they never had a problem during decades of working in noisy surroundings, but are now dealing with some heavy hearing loss.

"And they always said, 'It didn't bother me.' Well, it didn't bother your brain, but it damaged the fine structures of your ears."

Here are a few websites where adults and kids can go for more information about noise-induced hearing loss:

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(Copyright 2012 by WTOP. All Rights Reserved.)