One of the buzz safety issues this holiday shopping season is toy volume.

A quick walk through any store targeted to people twenty or younger – in other words, almost any store – reveals the importance of emphatic sensory appeal to product value, especially for toys and games. The best-selling holiday items are often outfitted with literal bells and whistles, or the 21st century equivalent.

This has perpetrated something of an arms race among toy manufacturers. It’s not unheard of, according to some reports, for holiday toys aimed at children younger than three to reach 115 decibels or higher. The risk of hearing loss is made worse, many note, because children have short arms, and generally play with their toys at a very close distance. For accuracy, decibel measurements thus must be taken from just a few inches away. Children also have smaller ear canals, which make them more susceptible to auditory damage even after a few seconds of listening.

Here is the Sight and Hearing Association‘s top offender from 2008, the Shake ‘N Go, a toy car that reaches 120.8 db, in action.

The United States issues recommendations for toy volume, but compliance is voluntary. Canada has stricter regulations, but many toys surge past the limits anyway. A number of independent tests quoted in news stories found that well over half of popular holiday toys significantly exceeded guidelines or recommendations.

The research in audiology is conclusive: children experience real risk by playing with loud toys. Hearing loss, especially at a young age, is not only inconvenient, but a demonstrable impediment to learning. There is a definite need for regulation that would limit these harmful effects.

Toys are loud because it’s profitable, and so in a sense necessary, to make them that way. We’ve discussed in this space a certain general trend toward greater silence in product manufacture, as a way to signify modern and especially “green” technology. But such a shift has hardly taken effect among children’s toys. One can see the stirrings, however, of a kind of elite response, underwritten by boutiqueish nostalgia, for playthings that would never blare out music or canned phrases. When I (b. 1980) was little, interactive educational toys were de rigueur among concerned parents; adjusted for the volume demands of the contemporary marketplace, would these still even qualify as safe?

With respect to noise, toys are in the same ironic position as most consumer goods. Even once sound became too loud for political comfort, industry couldn’t turn down the volume on consumer taste. Niche markets, ostensibly healthier for our ears, began to develop, but these are an incomplete solution, because they stigmatize noise rather than diminishing it. Meanwhile, those who consume “mass market” goods (i.e. the most affordable offerings), through no fault of their own, put their children in a disadvantaged position.

There is a clear burden on government to introduce significant regulation. But we should also recognize that the origin of the problem is deep-seated.

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