The widespread use of MP3s and other music players has led to a jump in hearing loss among teenagers, says a new survey. Researchers in Boston, Massachusetts report that a growing number of 12-19 year olds have suffered slight hearing loss. Between 1988-94 and 2005-06, the percentage of teenagers with hearing loss jumped by around a third, from 15% of 12-to-19-year-olds to 19.5%, say the authors of a study led by Dr Josef Shargorodsky, of the Brigham and Women's Hospital.

“This study highlights the widespread concern felt over the risks personal music players, together with loud music at gigs and clubs, pose to hearing,” says Emma Harrison, director of public engagement at the Royal National Institute for Deaf People (RNID). Two-thirds of people who used iPods and similar devices use them to listen to music at louder than 85 decibels, which according to the World Health Organisation, can cause permanent hearing damage over time, says Harrison.

The issue is complex: the study’s authors report that loud music may not be the only thing that can be damaging kids ears.

“Adolescent hearing loss, although common, is not well understood,” says a spokesman for the Journal of the American Medical Association, where Dr Shargorodsky’s report was published. “Some risk factors, such as loud sound exposure from listening to music, may be of particular importance to adolescents,” he said.

There are nine million people in the UK who have some degree of hearing loss. Other people experience tinnitus, the word we use to mean noises that some people hear ‘in the ears’ or ‘in the head’ – buzzing, ringing, hissing, and other sounds. About 10% of adults or 4.7 million people have experienced tinnitus for longer than five minutes, while about 5% of adults – 2.3 million people – have tinnitus which they find severely or moderately annoying.

Sonny Miller is only 22 and has already damaged his hearing. “I have been listening to loud dance music since I was a teenager. My hearing is in a real mess. I have permanent tinnitus and moderate deafness in the very high frequencies. This means that I no longer hear the high frequency parts of music unless I am in a very loud club - imagine not hearing cymbals and hi hats on your radio at home or on your iPod,” he says. “All of this could have been avoided by wearing earplugs. I started wearing earplugs about a year before I noticed my hearing loss. By this time it was already far too late. I look back now at the hours I've spent dancing on speakers, blasting my iPod and clubbing without earplugs, and I feel like kicking myself. The very thing I love the most in life has left me with a serious problem at the age of 22.” He is now religious about wearing earplugs when he goes clubbing. “Hearing is a gift. It brings so much pleasure to my life,” Sonny says.

If you are a teenager or the parent of a teenager, you may want to keep these tips in mind to maximise your enjoyment of music while protecting your hearing.

Take a five-minute rest for every hour you listen to your personal music player to allow ears to recover.

If you crank up the volume on noisy trains or busy streets, invest in noise-cancelling or sound-isolating headphones that cut out background noise.

If someone close by can hear your music or it's uncomfortable to listen to, the music is too loud, so turn it down a few notches.

The RNID has launched a campaign called Don't Lose the Music to make sure people know how and why to protect their hearing while enjoying music.

To find out more please go to www.dontlosethemusic.com

You can also take the RNID’s Hearing Check online www.rnid.org.uk/howwehelp/hearing_check/take_online_hearing_check or call 0844 800 3838 (calls from a BT landline cost up to 5p per minute. Other providers' charges may vary. Call set up charge may apply).

By Alice Lagnado Alice is Assistant Editor at the RNID's magazine for members, One in Seven.