What this does to our bodies and brains is not under discussion here (ie. the effects on attention, alertness, communication, blood pressure, sleep, the endocrine system, emotional development, not to mention hearing loss, stress-related conditions like colitis, anxiety and aggression). However, what we could do to try and delay the detrimental effects on young children is.
Why is excessive noise hazardous to your children’s emotional health and development? Noise is associated with increased aggression, decreased helpful behaviour, a reduction in motivation and task performance, as well as impaired cognitive development in children.
In recent years a significant increase in noise levels has crept up on us, resulting in levels that are actually harmful. Sadly, this is around us everywhere we go. To illustrate this: while conversation measures at approximately 60 decibels, a vacuum cleaner causes around 75 decibels of noise, a metro train rushing past is upwards from 90, and a motorcycle going by is approximately around 100 (depending on the size and make of the engine). Sounds above 85dB are harmful to adults; for children this figure is even lower, around 75dB.
That this is a serious issue and one that is easily over-looked is clear. What could we do to minimise the damage?
1. Try to do a simple noise assessment in your home at several points over a day. Stop for a few moments and listen very carefully. Is there background noise that could be eliminated? Is any equipment on stand-by emitting noise? Could it be turned off? Try to switch off or remove most pieces of equipment. With a young child in tow, avoid places with a high noise level or limit your exposure. This includes certain shopping malls, in-door swimming baths, Ice-rinks, sports halls and many in-door play areas for children. Just listen to the deafening noise in there! Children’s parties often include entertainment that is far too loud. If you become aware of this, do something about it. Get them to reduce the volume. Any music or film played to children should be at a comfortable volume. If children complain that they cannot hear, there is a chance that their hearing is already damaged. Most people do not realise that more hearing loss results from exposure to loud noise than from old age. The World Health Organization recommends that the sound level indoors should be less than 30 dB.
2. When you find yourself raising your voice over noise, or the noise around you makes your ears hurt, or ring, there is clearly too much noise around you. Leave if you can. Or turn machinery and appliances off.
3. Plan for “quiet time” every day. Organise a break from every kind of noise. Go to the park or some other quiet place. Into nature would, of course, be the best.
4. Avoid using blenders, domestic coffee grinders, hoovers, hair dryers, food processors, and leaf-blowers near children. The noise emitted by these appliances can cause permanent hearing loss if a child is exposed to it regularly and for longer periods of time.
5. Try to look for domestic appliances with low noise ratings. As a reflection of our times these do exist in increasing numbers.
6. Turn down the volume on TVs, computers, iPads, iPods and any noise emitting devices your children may be spending a long time with. Try to find the lowest possible setting at which they can still hear comfortably. You may have to be quite firm here. It may take a day or two for them to adjust to a reduction in volume, but it is worth persevering.
7. If the school or nursery disco is too loud say so.
8. Noisy environments affect children’s ability to learn and their ability to cope with normal challenges. Educate children about caring for their ears. Teach them not to stand next to engines, tractors, noisy building sites, speakers at events. Walk away from noise.
9. Avoid loud volumes through ear-phones. Blasting loud noise directly into ears is the worst anyone can do. If the person standing next to the one wearing the earphones can hear the music, the earphones are on too high a volume setting. Sadly, the very music your children claim to enjoy, may be ruining their long-term chances of hearing it.
While the damage from most temporary noise exposure is reversible, this is not the case when someone is subjected to loud noise long-term, or when exposure to very loud noise. Being subjected daily to high levels of noise, provokes changes that are literally deafening. In fact, at least one study found that one third of students who work in noisy environments like music clubs, bars, and restaurants were found to have permanent hearing loss.
In a Scandinavian study a hearing test on 538 teenage boys revealed a hearing loss (greater than 15 decibels) in 15% of those tested, caused in most cases by noise exposure.
Another, a German review, estimated that one in 10 adolescents had some degree of noise-induced hearing loss from ‘leisure time noise.’
Damage usually develops slowly, causing no pain or other noticeable symptoms. You may not notice that you, or your child, have hearing loss until it is severe. As volumes increase, the amount of times you can listen to the sound before actual damage occurs, decreases.
Although most cases of noise-induced hearing loss are caused by repeated exposure to moderate levels of noise over many years, and not by a few cases of very loud noise, this is an issue parents need to be aware of. Hearing is so vital to the full quality of our lives, we should do everything possible to maintain it.