Headphone Usage by Children and Brain Neuroplasticity

little boy wearing headphones and playing on a tablet
Cheri Moore

Written by Cheri Moore

May 13, 2021

Headphone usage, while convenient in today’s society, could be negatively affecting the development of your child’s brain, the next generation.

The Development of the Auditory System

Wow! Did you know that infants can hear in the womb? In 1994, researchers Peter G Hepper and B Sara Shahidullah published the study, Development of Fetal Hearing. At 19 weeks of gestational age, infants begin to move in response to low-frequency sounds at 500 Hertz. Later, responses were found at 27 weeks of gestational age to an even lower frequency of sounds at 250 Hertz. Then, development continued in mid-frequencies up to 3000 Hertz.

baby in utero with hearing system developed

According to researcher Ruth Litovsky, in The Development of the Auditory System, the physical structures of the auditory system are in place at birth. However, auditory development is a life-long process dependent on the naturally occurring development of physical structures and “in response to stimulation.” For example, your attention, memory, and inherited innate cognitive abilities affect how you respond to sound. Additionally, Litovsky shares that neural plasticity enables the auditory system to adapt and change throughout one’s life experiences. For example, an infant may express delight in music. Exposure to music influences the development of the infant’s brain. When musicians practice a song, they develop muscle memory. The interactions within the sensory system are endless.

Neuroplasticity Within the Brain

Neuroplasticity is the brain’s ability to change itself. As the brain develops, it takes in what is seen, heard, smelled, tasted, and felt through chronic exposure to sensory input. Additionally, you are also affected by how your muscles and tendons interact with gravity, your proprioceptive system. Norman Doidge shared that even what you think affects your brain.

When illnesses like ear infections occur, sounds still enter your hearing system. However, the ear infection weakens the intensity of sounds traveling through your hearing system, along your auditory neural pathways to the brain. Since ear infections rarely occur in both ears, sounds fail to synch up on their way up to the brain’s processing system. According to Norman Doidge, when sound travels along auditory neural pathways out-of-synch, you have “a noisy, dysregulated nervous system.” Thus, you are at risk of developing sound sensitivities. Sound sensitivities can be the result of a noisy, dysregulated nervous system.

Norman Doidge shares fascinating insights about brain neuroplasticity in his books, The Brain’s Way of Healing, and The Brain that Changes Itself.

Intervention Regulates the Nervous System

In contrast, positive changes occur within the nervous system through therapeutic listening using iLs Auditory Integrated Listening or Berard-based Auditory Integration Training. Through the use of a comprehensive hearing evaluation, I strive to synch up sounds from both ears. Thus, sending strong sound energy stimulation along auditory neural pathways. As auditory neural pathways strengthen, the brain changes its response to sounds. Consequently, sound tolerance gradually improves as long as there is ear health.

Importance of Auditory Behavioral Characteristics

In 2011, the most important lesson I learned as I began work as an auditory integration trainer resulted in help for numerous clients. A friend and mentor, Mrs. Kathy Jones emphasized that a client’s auditory behavioral characteristics are as important as their hearing test results. Even when the exact cause of hearing loss is unknown, clients with hearing loss behavioral characteristics may benefit from hearing aids.

To help you understand, I would like to share a memory Mrs. Kathy Jones shared with me:

One day, a man who struggled to listen and learn for thirty-three years came to her practice. He shared that all his past hearing test results were normal. Nevertheless, his behavioral characteristics indicated hearing loss concerns. Thus, Kathy completed additional hearing tests. His Uncomfortable Loudness Test results and Speech in Noise test results indicated hearing loss concerns. The gentleman agreed to try hearing aids. Almost immediately after he wore hearing aids for the first time, he heard improvements while listening. In amazement, he shared that Kathy’s speech was easier to understand. He described her speech as crisp and clear. Later, he shared numerous improvements at work, at home, and while socializing.

After hearing Kathy’s story, I began to recheck the accuracy of client’s Uncomfortable Loudness test. Using headphones and therapeutic music, I asked clients to slowly turn up the volume until music sounded too loud. Surprisingly, clients who failed to respond during the Uncomfortable Loudness Test consistently choose unsafe listening levels. What I learned prompted me to observe auditory behaviors, ask new questions, and read research publications.

Seeking Behaviors

teen boy wearing headphones working on a laptop

Each of us are prompted subconsciously by our brain to act. I call these actions seeking behaviors. For example, clients rarely thought about why they wore earbuds or headphones while listening to music until our discussion. With strong emotion, some clients shared they started wearing earbuds or headphones to block out distracting sounds. Did they have sound intolerance? However, other clients shared that loud music helped them think and focus. Did they have an under-stimulated hearing system or mild hearing loss?

Noise-Induced Hearing Loss in Children

While studying the effects of noise-induced hearing loss in children, Harrison found expressive speech difficulties. Greatly concerned, Harrison emphasized that even when hearing loss is not found in the cochlea, auditory behavioral characteristics like expressive speech difficulties indicate problems within the brain’s auditory processing system. Harrison emphasized the importance of completing additional audiometric testing of Central Auditory Processing Skills (7). As I studied and worked with clients, I began to notice patterns of auditory behavioral characteristics associated with sound sensitivities versus hearing loss with sound intolerance.

I developed the preschool and student Moore Auditory-Visual Questionnaires to help you learn if your child has behavioral characteristics of sound sensitivity, auditory processing difficulties, and/or hearing loss. The questions are based on research findings and my experiences working with clients.

Surprising Effects of Mild Hearing Loss

Even when the hearing system is mildly under-stimulated by sounds and speech, John Hopkins University researchers found significant difficulties in children.

  1. Children lagged in vestibular development
  2. Sadly, untreated hearing loss in children negatively affects all areas of life
    1. Socializing
    2. Learning
    3. Emotional Health, Self-Esteem, Depression
    4. Expressive Speech
    5. Relationships within the Family
father with his hand on his head holding a screaming baby and three kids playing in the background

Due to difficulties listening in noisy environments, clients, who were later found to have hearing loss, shared they avoided social events and group conversations. Instead of risking embarrassment, participants felt emotionally safer staying home. I share the effects of hearing loss in children and adults in the video If Only I Had Known How My Hearing Was Affecting My Life. I am still amazed by how many sensory systems receive stimulation directly or indirectly from the hearing system.

Protect Your Child’s Hearing

Protect your child’s hearing from noise-induced hearing loss. Researchers still have much to learn about the effects of noise exposure from headphones and earbuds upon a preschooler, child, and teen’s developing auditory processing system within the brain.

In the blog, the Listening Habits Affect the Safety of Earbud and Headphone Usage, I share that researchers found that unsafe listening habits in children, teens, and young adults resulted in hearing loss. Even with normal listening volume levels, wearing headphones or earbuds too often resulted in hearing loss. Thus, your child’s listening volume should be set at about a third of the output of their listing device. Equally important, each day limit how long they use their headphones or earbuds.

If your child is three years of age or younger, Dr. Berard warns against the use of headphones (1). Even after age three, Dr. Berard cautions against using headphones for more than thirty minutes at a time (1). The best choice for your child’s hearing system is to enjoy sound out in the room.

Parents, Limit Your Child’s Headphone Volume and Usage

Infants and toddlers should never wear headphones! Instead, play the music out in the room. If you have older children who like to listen to music while playing or riding their bike, purchase a waterproof armband for your cell phone through Amazon, at Walmart, Target, or your local sporting goods store. Help your loved ones listen to music and play while also protecting their ears.

Teach Safe Listening Habits When They Must Listen With Headphones

When loud environmental sounds make it too difficult to listen with earbuds and headphones, teach your child to:

  1. Take the headphones off
  2. Pause what they are listening to and leave to find a quiet place
  3. Finish listening later

Set and Lock the Volume on Your Devices

For an Apple device: iPhone Video

  1. Go to Settings
  2. First, Tap Sounds & Haptics; other iPhone models have just Sounds
  3. Next, turn on Reduce Loud Sounds
  4. Then, drag the slider to choose the maximum decibel level for headphone audio

Guidelines for Setting the Volume with Headphones

Initially, start with about a fourth of the possible output of the device in a quiet environment. Children ages six to twelve should listen to no more than a third of the possible output. If they choose a higher volume and seek sound stimulation, but also complain when others are loud, I encourage you to complete my questionnaire.

headphone safety screen from an iPhone

Set the Volume on Playing Devices

After your child plays a game using headphones, do you find they respond with irritation when you talk to them? If so, you need to turn down the volume on their gaming device & limit their playing time to thirty minutes. Set a timer and teach them to listen to their body. In fact, most gaming devices have a warning encouraging players to limit their playing time to thirty minutes.

Set Parental Controls and Spending Limits on PlayStation

Set Parental Controls for Xbox360

Nintendo Switch Parental Control Mobile App Watch the video.
Some parental controls are available within the Nintendo gaming system.

References

  1. Berard, G. (1993). Hearing Equals Behavior. New Canaan, Connecticut: Keats Publishing.
  2. Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry at the Univ. of Alberta. (2011). Human brain development does not stop at adolescence: Research. University of Alberta Faculty of Medicine & Dentistry,
  3. Fligor, B., (2009). Personal listening devices and hearing loss: seeking evidence of a long term problem through a successful short-term investigation. Noise and Health, 11(44),
    129-131.
  4. Harrison, R. (2008). Noise-induced hearing loss in children: A ‘less than silent’ environmental
    danger. Pediatrics & Child Health, 13(5), 377-382.
  5. Hepper, Peter G., Shahidullah, Sara B.(Sept. 1994). Development of fetal hearing. US National
    Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health. Arch Dis Child Fetal Neonatal Ed.
    71(2): F81-F87. Doi: 10.1136/fn.71.2.f 81.
  6. Litovsky, Ruth (2015). Development of the auditory system. US National Library of Medicine
    National Institutes of Health. Handbook Clinical Neurology. 129 (55-72).
    Doi: 10.1016/B978-0-444-62630-1.00003-2.

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