We constantly complain our teenage kids don't listen to us. “Have you gone deaf?” we ask in frustration. That comment might well mean a lot more. Are you sure your teen can hear well?

A recent study has come up with this must-hear answer. When teens don't pay attention when spoken to, it may be because they can't, not because they don't want to: one in five teens in the U.S. suffers some loss of hearing. And, the condition is spreading rapidly.

Tracked over a period of 16 years, data on 12-15-year-olds shows that compared to the 15 per cent earlier, nearly 20 per cent of kids now are close to hearing nothing at all. Most of them can't hear low sounds — a whisper, the rustling of leaves, water dripping from a tap or mom's soft ‘Good Night'.

Doctors have been saying it forever. Concentrated sound — the kind that our young pour into their ears through fancy button speakers from iPods and MP3 players — is bound to damage hearing capacity. But, it has been falling on deaf ears.

“Young people (14-20 years) suffer from noise trauma,” says AN Sreevatsan, ENT Surgeon. “A number of them complain of a blocked sensation, tinnitus (unwanted noise), pain in the outer ear and plain hearing loss, at least in one ear.” Some admitted they were faking conversation, as they had no pitch discrimination and no word-to-word clarity.

Frequency disorders

“When I examine their ears, I find that the drum looks normal and the inner ear is clean. However, the audiogram reveals clear frequency disorders. Circulation to the hearing nerve is affected, and the cells start deteriorating. Gradually, kids reach nerve deafness, which has no treatment,” he says.

Sure, researchers didn't single out iPods and other devices, but they found a significant increase in high-frequency hearing loss.

A 2010 Australian study linked use of personal listening devices to a 70 per cent increase in risk of hearing loss in children. Young people are listening for longer hours, and to louder music.

Older technologies had limited battery life and limited music storage. Now, sophisticated earbuds trap sound waves in the ear canal with no escape, resulting in prolonged eardrum bombardment.

When high-pitched TV ads, iPods, laptops, blaring car stereos and weekend discos dish out 85+dBs of metallic sound to young eardrums, the consequences should be obvious. Constant noise has a cascading effect. You can't hear, so crank up the volume. This causes hearing loss, and so you have to crank up some more. You play. You pay.

Gradual loss of hearing could lead to poor school performance and behavioural problems. What we need is a set of healthy hearing habits, now called “hearing conservation”, to protect our ears from noise pollution. There can't be a more powerful motivation for this than the fact that loud noises can worsen existing tinnitus and further degrade hearing.

When is “loud” too loud? Any sound sharper than the one from the alarm clock is bad. If you are standing three feet away from someone and cannot hear what they say, the noise level around has reached ear-damaging levels. Do check out www.dangerousdecibels.org. This website tests your knowledge of noise risk and tells you how loud, sounds in our everyday lives can be. The site's “Virtual Exhibit” is fun.

“Reduce the number of hours on the cell phone,” says Dr. Sreevatsan. Turn down the volume of music — on the CD/cassette player, stereo or iPod. Mute the ringtone. Decrease the sound on TV. Bring down the speed of the fan. When you are outside, cover your ears or walk away from loud noises. Wear earplugs at concerts and disco joints. Give your ears a break. And, hope for the best.

Cut out the noise

Keep a clean pair of earplugs (the foam kind) handy for use while watching movies, while operating washing machines, and at concerts.

Stay away from amplifiers at wedding receptions.

Don't buy loud toys for babies.

If you are a musician, get custom-made hearing protection. Check out quiet drumsticks.

Request people to tone down speakers.

Avoid using loud car horns.