Headphones for Kids

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I had written this article during the height of the COVID pandemic, when many kids were using headphones for Zoom school. But even before that, parents would often ask me about the best (and safest) headphones for children. Of course, any recommendations about technology are usually out of date by the time they are published. However, I happened to have been interviewed earlier this year about the topic by a reporter from New York Magazine, whose article included a number of specific product reviews. Before getting to those, let me give you my general thoughts on the subject.

Although there are a few “bone oscillator” style headphones that are gaining in popularity, most consumer headphones fall into one of four categories - over the ear, on the ear, in the ear and the classic “earbuds”. The over the ear models have cups that completely surround the pinna (the part of the ear that sticks out of the head), while the on the ear design sits on top of the pinna. Each of these can be wired or use wireless / bluetooth technology. For adults, there are a number of tradeoffs to be considered, including sound quality, noise isolation, comfort and cost. But this article is mainly written for the parents of younger children who have specific needs that have to be considered.

One of the main concerns about these devices is their capacity to deliver extremely high sound volumes. Aging boomers like myself might appreciate the extra hearing assist, and the nostalgia for the concerts of our youth. But prolonged exposure to loud sound can be dangerous, especially for young children. Noise trauma can cause temporary or even permanent hearing loss, and smart professional musicians are always careful to use sound protection when playing amplified instruments. Fortunately, most headphones specifically marketed for kids have volume limiters built in to prevent excessive sound levels. Be careful to check this function by listening yourself, though - not all limiters are created equal and some cheaper models don’t deliver the safety that they claim.

Another thing to keep in mind is that tight fitting over the ear headphones are designed to keep external sound out and the sound of the audio source in. This is both a feature and a bug. By blocking external sound (through insulating earcups or even noise-cancelling circuitry), you are certainly less distracted from your music by the outside world. But that also means that parents will have more trouble than ever getting their kids’ attention, not to mention the danger of wearing these when walking near traffic.

Another downside of this design is that it is very difficult for a parent to monitor the sound level, which is especially a problem if no limiter is present. The general rule of thumb is that if you can hear someone else’s music when they are wearing headphones, the sound is too loud and should be turned down. But with high quality over the ear headphones, even extremely loud volumes may be undetectable by anyone else. Parents of young children might appreciate the silence that comes from allowing an occasional bit of screen time with these devices, but it’s better to avoid those that totally cover the ears for this reason.

In-ear headphones and earbuds are of course the overwhelming choice of teenagers and adults (apart from true audiophiles who prefer the over the ear style). While they are very portable, they are less likely to be available with sound limiters. Furthermore, fit is critical, and few of them are small enough for young ears. They tend to either fall out or they are painful to insert. The pain can either come from the ear canal, if the in-ear portion is too big, or from the "external auditory meatus", the outer end of the ear canal where the hard plastic of many of these devices pushes tightly against the skin. The in-ear models usually come with a number of interchangeable tips for better fit, but that also means that the tips come off pretty easily. I have removed many of these that have gotten loose in an ear canal! Finally, expensive wireless models (like Apple AirPods) are easily lost by kids. And since children under three get screen time too, remember that these are extremely dangerous if swallowed. Not only are they a choking hazard, the battery can do significant damage to the throat. PLEASE do not let very young children use these wireless in-ear devices.

So in general, I prefer on the ear headphones for young children, that sit on the outside of the ear but don’t cover it completely. Since many of these are marketed to children, there are a lot of options decorated with your favorite licensed characters. Who doesn’t need one more piece of Frozen merchandise in their home? There is no need to spend a lot of money on these - most modern models provide more than adequate sound quality. Because the styles that sit on the ear don’t block sound transmission as much a the over the ear models, they make it easier for you to get your child’s attention, and to monitor their sound volumes. The also tend to be more comfortable and less hot than the over the ear versions. Here is that excellent article by Lori Keong and Stacey Dee Woods with specific recommendations.

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