The number of teenagers with hearing loss has risen dramatically in recent years, according to a study published this week in the Journal of the American Medical Association. The number of teen with a slight hearing loss has increased 30% in the past 15 years, and the number with mild or worse hearing loss has increased 70%.
Today, one in five teens has a slight hearing loss and one in twenty has a greater hearing loss. While the current study did not identify a cause for teen hearing loss, another study conducted in Australia has shown a 70% higher risk of hearing loss with the use of portable earphones – a ubiquitous practice among today’s teens.
Dr. Allison Grimes of the UCLA Medical Center audiology clinic cautioned against ignoring these losses, no matter how slight they may be. “Just because a hearing loss is slight doesn’t mean it’s insignificant”, Grimes said.
Softer, higher-frequency sounds such as “S”, “F”, “Th”, and “Sh” are very important in understanding speech; thus even a slight hearing loss can become problematic. Soft, high-frequency perception is the most vulnerable from loud headphones.
The effects of high-frequency hearing loss, such as difficulty understanding speech, are more pronounced with background noise in the mix. Classroom environments, especially those where cooperative learning and differentiated instruction are commonplace, are likely to have a lot of background noise. “We know children have more difficulty learning and keeping up academically when they can’t hear well”, Grimes said.
Two student demographic factors, being male and being poor, are correlated with low academic achievement. Interestingly, researchers found that males were significantly more likely to have hearing loss than females. Likewise, students living below poverty level were significantly more likely to have hearing loss than their more affluent peers.
Public schools and educators have come under increasing scrutiny, and are held increasingly accountable for student outcomes. At the same time, education reform advocates are quick to find failure in public schools and even quicker to place the blame on public school teachers. No other profession is held to such impossible standards, or treated with such contempt when impossible standards aren’t met.
Though it is important to have quality teachers for all students, it is unrealistic to hold teachers exclusively accountable for student outcomes. Headphone-induced hearing loss is yet another in a myriad of factors affecting student achievement which are beyond the teacher’s control. Everything in students’ lives, from early childhood care to toxic lead to plain old playing in the dirt can and will affect how students perform in school.
Perhaps when students fail we should not blame the teachers, but instead blame the corporations that manufacture and market portable headphones. Or blame the parents who allow kids to use them. Or blame the kids who never touch the “down” arrow on the volume control.
If only the kids would listen.