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The MP3 Generation: At Risk for Hearing Loss?

Experts discuss the possible risk to hearing from listening to MP3s for long periods of time.

Put a Lid on It

Limiting the volume of MP3 players may seem like an obvious solution.

Devices, such as the Kid'sEarSaver, claim to reduce the sound output of listening devices, such as MP3 and CD players. Inventor Tom Metcalfe tells WebMD that Kid'sEarSaver reduces sound by more than 15 decibels.

"That's enough to give parents some peace of mind," says Metcalfe.

Also, France and other European countries have enacted laws that limit the volume of iPods and other devices to 100 decibels.

But Fligor believes such efforts produce a false sense of safety.

"Capping the volume focuses on the sound level, not the dose," he said. "If you set the cap at 100, that doesn't give you license to listen all day."

Besides, as soon as those European nations capped the sound level of iPods, web sites started providing detailed instructions on how to override that limit.

Dealing With Denial

The simple fact is that young people like their music loud and seldom believe that hearing loss is a serious danger.

A recent study in Pediatrics reported that of the nearly 10,000 people who responded to a survey posted on the MTV web site, only 8% considered hearing loss "a very big problem."

That was below sexually transmitted diseases (50%), alcohol and drug use (47%) and even acne (18%). While 61% said they had experienced ringing in their ears or other hearing problems after attending rock concerts, only 14% said they had used ear protection.

Even when they believe hearing loss is a danger, many young people still refuse to turn down the music.

Music Dependency

"When I ask kids why they're not worried about hearing loss, they say they have faith that medical technology will find a way to restore their hearing," Deanna Meinke, chairwoman of the National Hearing Conservation Association's Task Force on Children and Hearing, tells WebMD.

Mary Florentine, an audiologist at Northeastern University, suspects that some young people actually have what she calls a loud music dependency disorder (LMDD).

"I asked people why they continued to expose themselves to loud music even though they knew it was harming their hearing, and they said they couldn't stop listening," says Florentine. "They said, 'When I stop listening I get sad and depressed, and then I go back to it because I can't take it after a while. I start listening again at moderate levels, but it doesn't do anything for me, so I start to listen at high levels.'"

In a study, Florentine and colleagues adapted a test normally used to identify alcohol dependency. For example, the question, "Do you feel you are a normal drinker?" became, "Do you feel you listen at normal levels?" Eight of the 90 participants who answered the 32 questions had scores in the same range as substance abusers.

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