A much publicized 2010 study found that hearing loss in teenagers had increased alarmingly. But new research published today in the journal Pediatrics suggests that those concerns may not be justified. 

According to the new research, about 15 percent of 12- to 19-year-olds in the U.S. have some degree of hearing loss, about the same percentage as back in 1994.

While this may seem like good news, the researchers warn that there's still some cause for worry. 

“We need more data so we can know what’s actually happening in this population,” says the study's author, Tyson S. Barrett, a Ph.D. candidate in psychology at Utah State University.

Hearing loss in adolescents remains a significant issue, affecting slightly more of them than asthma does—and just shy of the number of teens who are obese, says Deepa L. Sekhar, M.D., an associate professor of pediatrics at Penn State College of Medicine.

Hearing problems have been linked to poor school performance, reduced social engagement and language development, and low self esteem.

Here’s what you need to know.

Hearing Loss Studies on Teens

The results of the 2010 study and the new study should be interpreted with caution, Barrett says.

The 2010 study, which was published in the Journal of the American Medical Association, suggested that hearing loss in teenagers had increased by up to 51 percent between 1994 and 2006. “This triggered some questions that maybe it had to do with all the new technology, like iPods,” Barrett says.

More on Hearing Loss

But that research—which analyzed results from the long-running National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES)—only had information available for 1994 and 2006, not the 11 years in between.

To get a much more complete picture, Barrett says he and his co-author added NHANES data from 2008 and 2010. They found that by 2010, the apparent increase in teen hearing loss looked like it had fallen back to 1994 levels.

Barrett says that while four years of data are better than two, it’s not enough to know definitively whether rates of hearing loss in teens are actually stabilizing. (NHANES stopped collecting information on hearing in 2010.)

How to Protect Young Ears

In 2015 the World Health Organization said that about 1.1 billion teens and young adults were at risk of hearing loss. Why? Because of unsafe sound levels from personal audio devices such as smartphones and iPods, and from noisy rock concerts, sports venues, and nightclubs.

“We know that kids are using headphones more. And headphones can cause hearing loss; that is not in question,” says Brian Fligor, Ph.D., an audiologist and founder and president of Boston Audiology Consultants in Mansfield, Mass.

To help protect their hearing, experts suggest the following:  

Turn down the sound. A leading cause of hearing loss, second only to aging, Fligor says, is exposure to noise. Even a single burst of loud sound can damage the tiny hair cells that line the inner ear, often irreversibly, he says.

For this reason it's important to be mindful, whether you're experiencing the din of a rock concert, a chainsaw, a firearm, or an aircraft, he says. “Any time you have to shout for someone to understand you, you either need to turn it down, walk away, or use hearing protection,” he advises.

When using headphones, follow the 80-90 rule. Fligor recommends that patients who listen to music or other audio at 80 percent of the maximum volume do so for no more than 90 minutes per day. This can be a challenging rule for parents to enforce, he says, but if you teach them to respect their hearing and you model good behavior, they're more likely to stay within these guidelines.

The World Health Organization is currently drafting guidance to help manufacturers incorporate features that warn consumers when they’ve hit their limit, which may be useful in encouraging adherence to the 80-90 rule.

Reinforce a healthy lifestyle. Diabetes, especially type 2 diabetes, is one of the biggest risk factors for hearing loss, says Fligor. In fact, according to the American Diabetes Association, hearing loss is twice as common in people with diabetes as it is in others.

Why? Experts think high blood glucose levels may damage the blood vessels that supply oxygen and nutrients to the inner ear. Smoking is thought to inflict similar damage, Fligor says.

Encouraging appropriate eating and exercise habits is good for adolescents in general and can reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes—and be good for hearing health, too.