It’s that time of year again, and the toys themselves seem to sense your desperation. Stacked on store shelves, they compete for your attention, unleashing peals of electronic giggles, laser blasts and melodies that nestle into your brain and stay there.
But excessively loud toys are more than just an irritation; they could permanently damage the hearing of young children who push their buttons repeatedly and hold the speakers up close. It’s generally accepted among physicians that the volume of a toy is at a safe level if it’s 85 decibels, when measured at a distance of 25 centimeters.
“That’s basically an arm’s length for a small child,” said Hamid Djalilian, an otolaryngologist with University of California, Irvine Health. “Assuming the child is going to use it right, then most, if not all, of these toys are perfectly safe. The problem is, children don’t always play with the toy the way they’re supposed to play with the toy. They like to hold it up to their ear to see where the sound’s coming out of.”
This year Djalilian, with help from his team, has resumed his off-and-on analysis of some of the most obnoxiously loud toys on the market. They tested 26 toys, meant for various age ranges, at a sound lab at UCI Medical Center in Orange, Calif. Every one had a maximum level of at least 90 dBs, when measured at the speaker, or as one would listen to it up close. Four years ago, only 13 out of 18 toys reached 90.
“We see this as a persistent problem,” he said. “This year, we found some very loud toy levels we haven’t seen in the past.”The loudest one on Djalilian’s naughty list was Hasbro’s Bop It! Smash ($27.99 on Amazon), which hit a peak of 125 dBs. By comparison, a jet plane during takeoff is 120 dBs when heard from a distance of several hundred feet.
Volume, proximity and duration factor into how dangerous a noise-producing item can be. The tiny, sensitive hair cells inside the inner ear can recover after hearing a short, loud burst of sound. But significant exposure to a loud enough sound can kill those cells, producing hearing loss that will be detected only later in life.
“Age-related hearing loss starts coming in at 40 to 50,” Djalilian said. “But if that child happens to listen to a lot of MP3s and plays drums, where they’re going to have more damage, then they’ll get the hearing loss a lot earlier. The more hearing damage, the more cells you lose.”
Djalilian said parents can protect their children’s hearing by “occluding” the speaker, such as covering it with masking tape. This can dilute the decibel level dramatically. He and his research assistant, Yaser Ghavami, and Marlon Maducdoc, a fourth-year UCI medical student, put tape over the Bop It! Smash toy, and that reduced the decibels to 90 at the speaker.
Other tips for parents:
• Put tape over the volume control, to prevent your child from ratcheting it up past a reasonable level.
• Teach children how to play with a toy properly and not to put it to their ears. Enforce time limits.
• Test it yourself. If it’s too loud at arm’s length, it’s not safe for the child. For more sophisticated measurement, Radio Shack sells an item called the Digital Sound Level Meter ($49.99), but there are several free sound-meter apps for iPhone and Android, including one called Decibel Meter that will give you a good ballpark reading.
Djalilian said a child’s inner ear is fully formed at birth, so loud sounds aren’t necessary to deliver information.
“A child’s hearing is actually very good, so there’s no reason they should be listening to very loud sounds,” Djalilian said.