Are over the ear headphones safer for kids than earbuds?

kids wearing headphones listening to music
Kids Using Over-Ear Headphones

How to Know Safe Options for Your Kids in Headphones and Earbuds

Today carrying your own music has become a part of life, especially with the electronic avalanche of smartphones. You have dedicated music apps that you can download, or you can just log into YouTube and let it do its thing. To avoid disturbing others, or to simply enjoy more clarity in sound, we use headphones, earphones or earbuds.

Whatever the form, these accessories are amazing to use, and can cost anything between a few dollars to hundreds of dollars. These are exceptionally popular with the younger generation.

However, how safe are these devices that our kids insert into their ears or wear over them? There is usually very little information on ear safety on the product packing. With this in mind, we bring you a few tips on how to know safe options for your kids in headphones and earbuds.

Luckily, in recent years the industry has also come out newer “safe-listening” volume limiting earbuds like these by Etymotic Research and similar functions on over-ear headphones like these highly rated Premium Kids Headphones by Puro Sound Labs.

To understand the basics about these listening devices, let us first take a closer look at each type :

Earphones or Headphones

two boys playing with headphones on
Kids are spending more hours everyday with headphones or earbuds.

These devices are worn over the outer ear. Manufacturers and audiophiles get even more specific with supraaural  (on-ear =sit on outer ear) vs  Circumaural (over-ear =covers entire outer ear) and open-back and closed back earcups (which isolate more ambient noise and leak less sound coming from the headphones).

Many earphones often contain FM receivers which enable them for cordless use, which also helps them to double up as an FM radio. Hence, earphones may be cordless or may have a cable attached (wired vs wireless). 

Earbuds

The original definition of earbuds wear ones that are fitted to cling to the outer ear without actually entering the ear canal (vs. canal-phones below) that are actually inserted into the ear and create a seal around the opening of the ear canal.

In recent years many people interchange the words earbuds and earphones since  in normal conversations hardly anyone talks about “Canalphones“. Earbuds are very popularly used in combination with smartphones today. Although they can fit snugly to the ear, they do have a tendency to come out, especially if the person is on the move.

Canalphones

These are modified earbuds. These devices have a similar structure to earbuds but have an extended kind of adapter made of a soft material, usually silicon rubber. The ear tip is so designed as to fit snugly into the ear canal, creating an almost airtight seal. As mentioned, this word is rarely used in normal conversations- most people talk about earbuds or earphones or may even mistakenly call them “earplugs” which confuses it a bit more. 

The main concern for parents and guardians seems to be…

Headphones vs Earbuds

Bigger bulky over ear headphones vs. earbuds that are jammed into their ear or more simply: Over the Ear vs In the Ear. In general from what we’ve research most doctors recommend headphones over in-ear earbuds because the headphone cups provide a buffer of space between the ear canal and the source of music. Some researches claim that earbuds can produce up to 9db more sound output from the same device just due to the proximity of the sound source being placed directly in the ear canal.

However, this by itself is not the bottom line.  Many popular devices and smartphones can produce max volume of around 120 decibels. You could have one child listening to music through that device using a pair of noise limiting earbuds that maxes out at 85db and child #2 listening to that same model phone with “normal” over-ear headphones at max volume.  Even though the second child is listening to over-ear headphones (which many automatically claim are safer than earbuds), the child with the noise limiting in-ear earphones is actually at substantially less risk (85db vs 120 db).

Functionality of the ear

ear anatomy
Ear Anatomy

To appreciate the critical role that the ear plays, let us first consider the construction of the human ear which consists to three main parts – the outer ear, middle ear and inner ear. While the outer ear contains the visible part of the ear which is responsible for collection of sound waves, the middle ear is a channel which carries the sound to the inner ear which is protected by a sensitive membrane called the tympanic membrane or the eardrum.

The function of the inner ear is to not only process sound waves and conduct them to the auditory nerves which convey sound signals to the brain but it also serves to provide equilibrium (sense of balance) to a person. Thus, we see the ear is an extremely sensitive and critical organ in the human body and can easily be damaged if exposed to excessive noise.

Noise Levels and Hearing Loss

The basic unit of noise is the decibel (dB). According to the World Health Organization, the level of noise beyond which hearing protection should be used is 85 decibels. However, you needn’t panic right off. Exposure to noise above 85 decibels doesn’t necessarily mean that you will get ear damage immediately – there is a time factor also involved. For example, exposure to 88 decibels for up to 4 hours will produce no adverse effect but the tolerance decreases with an increase in decibels.

Hence, the limit for 100 decibels is 15 minutes and 140 decibels or above does not have any limit. The noise exposure tolerance for children is less, with no exposure recommended at noise levels over 120 decibels.

Recommended Volume Levels for Listening Devices

kids noise level
What is a safe noise level?

So, where does all this leave us in relation to the ear headphones, earphones or earbuds that we have become so used to wearing today to enjoy privacy while listening to our favorite music?

Should you stop letting your kids use them for fear of ear damage? Well, the good news is, no. As you can see from the above figures, children have less tolerance levels to noise than adults.

The type of device that your kids are using is not so important as the volume level and the duration of use. Here is a ball park figure that you can use to prevent temporary or permanent hearing loss due to excessive volume from listening devices:

You can take up to 18 hours with volume levels of 50% and below

The limit is just 5 minutes for volume levels of 100%

How to avoid ear damage:

Here are a few pointers that you can recommend to your kids for a safer listening experience through their headphones, earphones or earbuds:

Headphones are a good option, as they remove ambient noise thereby requiring less volume.

In places of high ambient sound, use noise cancelling listening devices, as background noise also adds to the total noise that the ear is receiving.

Earbuds should be used carefully – ensure that they are inserted properly to avoid physical ear damage. Check out our guide and recommendations for safer noise-limiting earbuds and headphones for kids here. 

Today most smartphones, iPods or android players and smartphones will provide a warning alert when increasing the volume beyond a certain levelmake a special note of these.

Avoid continuous use of listening devices. Remove from the ears at regular intervals which will help to reduce continuous exposure to noise. Have your kids take breaks. 

Don’t use earbuds or headphones in extremely noisy areas – since it is likely that decibel levels are already beyond permissible limits, why torture your ears more?

If possible buy your kids noise limiting headphones or earbuds (most of these are set to limit decibel output to 85db or less.

Are Over the Ear Headphones, Earphones or Earbuds Safer for Kids?

So, here we are back to the original question. Now, if I were to say that any of these were safer or less-safe, neither would be a totally accurate statement.

After considering the information provided here regarding noise and its effect on the human ear, you should be aware of how to know safe options for your kids in headphones and earbuds, and we can conclude that the safety of using these listening devices lies in their usage not just the style of headphones vs earbuds.

Any tool, device or appliance if used incorrectly can cause damage and can be harmful to the user. The same rule applies to listening devices. Hence, as far as possible, try to educate your kids on what can go wrong by listening to high volume music using headphones, earplugs or earbuds and how to use them correctly. This way, your children can enjoy listening to music through any of these devices without the risk of temporary or permanent hearing loss.

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