As the father of a four-year-old and a six-year-old, birthday parties are suddenly a big part of my life. Scarcely a week goes by without a summons for one or both of the kids to attend two hours of fun, sugar and silliness in celebration of someone’s birthday.
So, what makes a good party? Families differ. We’ve hosted modest little parties for both our kids here at the house for their closest 6-8 friends with a bit of cake, and a round of “pass the parcel.” Other families like to paint on a larger canvass- renting the local leisure centres for more space, and I’m sure some have been known to rent the odd stadium, or even, perhaps, a small island. Likewise, people have varying ideas about what they think constitutes “fun.” As a parent, one feels bound to cultivate an extremely broad definition of “fun” in order to help your child make and maintain friendships, and to support your fellow parents, who go to enormous effort and expense to try to make birthdays a special occasion for their kids and yours.
Imagine, then, that for one of our kids’ next birthday party, we invite all their little friends for “an afternoon’s entertainment that will, with remorseless certainty, lead to sight loss and possible blindness.” Would you take your kids to such a party?
I doubt it.
And yet, I’m frequently shocked by how many activities “for kids-” parties, plays, djs, dances and get-togethers- take place at dangerously high decibel levels. Levels that will, with remorseless certainty, lead to hearing loss and possible deafness. A few weeks ago, I went to an otherwise lovely party of six-year-olds, marred only by the fact it was being MC’d by a DJ who had his PA system turned up so loud I downloaded a decibel meter to my iPhone just to see what I was exposing myself, and my darlings, to. For our mandatory two hours, the needle hardly dropped below 100 db, and peaked around 120. This was in an enclosed space with a ceiling about the height of a normal living room. The level at which sustained exposure causes hearing damage is 90db.
Two days later, we rolled up at a “soft play centre” for another party. Comparatively less music was played, but in a large, open space, boxed in by acoustically reflective surfaces on floor, ceiling and all four walls. Young kids do like to shriek when they’re playing, and with all those hard surfaces everywhere, those squeals of excitement were packing the same db punch as an un-muffled Harley (again, checked on a db meter). (More restaurants and bars should think about what they can do to increase sound absorption too) The loudest events of the afternoon, however, were the announcements on the PA system. I find it amazing that in such a “health and safety” culture, that staff are not trained in how to use a PA system safely, and that there aren’t some limits on how loud it can be. It’s just as capable of hurting children as any bit of play equipment, and the damage doesn’t heel the way a scrape or a sprain does.
One persistent problem with PA systems occurs almost every time I go to a school play- that of the sudden volume spike. Speaking lines are dished out evenly to all the kids in the class, who take turns talking into a hand-held wireless microphone. It’s all very cute until after three or for mumbling kids have had their turn, one cheeky little boy will yell as loud as he can into a microphone that’s been turned up and up and up while his classmates mumbled. Painful as those moments are for old fogies like me, they’re genuinely dangerous for kids, whose ears are still maturing at that age. There should be a limiter on school PA systems to protect against sudden volume spikes.
The world of children’s entertainment generally takes place at higher sound pressures than that of their parents. My kids, who are total movie fans, have told us they don’t want to go back to two of the local cinemas because the sound hurts their ears. The last time we went to a panto (American readers will have to look up what a British panto is- it’s nothing to do with Marcel Marceau), the sound system started fine, but the technicians seemed to think it was a good idea to turn it up constantly throughout the night, as the show gets more “fun,” until the last act had us in actual pain. An actor shouting something into a microphone can, without warning, push the already-high volume level up by a good 20+ db, and this happened again and again at this show. There are gizmos and software (limiters and compressors) that would prevent those kind of spikes- it’s not expensive, but apparently, most theatres are happy to let those spikes happen at every performance of a Christmas panto that usually runs for weeks.
And few institutions are as generally inept as running PA systems as orchestras (although the sound technician at the Cincinnati Symphony was amazingly good), who generally only use them for family concerts, pops and outdoor gigs. You think Mahler 6 is loud? Come along to your local Lolipops concert: younger audience=louder gig. These days, many family concerts are a mix of short classical works, film scores and the odd new touchy-feely song or play-along with a local band. That means that for much of the night, the orchestra is playing along at normal (loud!) levels, until suddenly, a PA system is unleashed on an unsuspecting audience that creates sound pressures which could make Metallica weep. It’s not just the audience, and the musicians, who are often caught unprepared- the sound guy has probably been out in the parking lot having a smoke. When he comes in to turn on the PA for the grand finale, he’s not really well placed to judge how much louder it is that the previous 90 minutes of music have been. He’s also probably deaf by now, anyway.
I suppose all of this makes me sound like an old fuddy-duddy, but hearing loss is serious business. Most of my rock-era budies have some tinnitus or hearing loss, as do a worrying percentage of orchestral musicians. After my last summer in Aspen, when we spent nine weeks sight reading Tchaikovsky symphonies with full brass in a space better suited to string quintets than Mozart Divertimenti, my ears rang for two months. I really worried I’d permanently damaged myself. The ringing stopped, eventually, but the bad thing about hearing loss is that I may not know until my fifties, sixties or seventies just how much damage I did that summer- in spite of the fact that many of the players begged for something to be done about the volume level in that space.
What’s particularly worrying about what I see around my children is a culture that associates high volume with fun. It’s an incredibly dangerous signal to send to kids, and yet it’s one we seem to reinforce all the time. Loud=fun. It’s your birthday- let’s make it incredibly loud! Let’s to the theatre and see a panto- it’s the perfect holiday entertainment for kids. Guess what, it’s also louder than my rock band ever played at club dates! Okay- we’ll go to the movies. Mind you don’t sit too close to the subwoofers, or the surround speakers! Actually- do sit there! It’s MORE FUN. Fine- we’ll go to the symphony. They’re doing a special concert for kids, and to make it extra fun, they’re borrowing the PA system The Who used in 1976. Well, at least they’re safe at school- until one of their classmates yells into the microphone during an otherwise delightful school play. (As an aside, I’m horrified by the rise of amplification by classroom teachers in American public schools- it just encourages kids to be noisy and normalizes extremely high volume levels even further).
Again and again, we’re telling little kids, really little kids, that having fun means making it loud. We know that as they grow up, they’ll go to rock concerts and clubs and risk their hearing, but in my generation, we knew the dangers, and realized that one needed to use earplugs and good sense. In my children’s generation, they’re so used to 110+db noise by the age of eight, that I doubt most of them will recognize the risks they’re taking when they turn 21 and go to a nightclub or a rock concert. They will have been raised to assume such levels are safe, normal and fun. Worse yet, by the age of 18, they may have already done such massive damage to their hearing that there’s nothing more to fear from a few years of college-age recklessness.
Call me old fashioned, but even as times may change, the anatomy of the ear doesn’t, and parents need to remember that your little darling is going to need those ears for the next eighty years or so, and their ears are even more vulnerable to damage than yours are.
I’ve only written two letters of complaint in my life- one to a soft play center and one to the theatre hosting the panto referenced above. In both cases, I never received a reply. I think that tells me all I need to know about how seriously they take the safety of young people’s hearing. The odd letter from a cranky old musician isn’t going to cut it. Please speak up for your child’s hearing, and tell purveyors of fun to turn it down.