A podcast during your morning chores, some classical music to drown out your noisy neighbours and a running playlist to get you through an evening jog. Experts fear our constant exposure to audio played straight into our ears could be creating a prematurely deaf generation.
“We are very concerned. Many people working or travelling are now wearing ear buds, but they don’t necessarily know the sound levels they’re exposing themselves to,” Professor David McAlpine says. The World Health Organisation estimates more than 1 billion young people are in danger of hearing loss from portable audio devices, including smart phones. But it’s not just teenagers who are at risk.
Anyone who uses headphones for more than 90 minutes each day could be jeopardising their hearing. A 2017 study by National Acoustic Laboratories found one in 10 regularly cranks up the volume on their headphones to more than 85 decibels — the equivalent to standing next to a running lawn mower. “When hearing damage starts, then you’re really on an irreversible journey. If you don’t protect your hearing, you’re going to damage it for life,” Professor McAlpine said. It’s currently estimated one in six will suffer some degree of hearing loss during their lives. That’s expected to rise to one in four by 2050, thanks to an ageing population and regular exposure to dangerously loud noises.
The recommended maximum use of headphones is for no more than 90 minutes a day and the volume should never go beyond 80 per cent. A good rule of thumb is that if others can hear the sounds coming out of headphones while you are wearing them, they are too loud. And it doesn’t matter whether it’s heavy metal or classical music — what’s important is the volume and duration of your listening session.
The global earphones and headphones market is worth about $12.6 billion, but it’s expected to grow to $20.8 billion by 2025. “The price doesn’t really strongly correlate with the sound quality or the protection, so you have to be very careful about what you’re actually buying,” Professor McAlpine said. The standard ear buds that come with your phone are okay — as long as you are disciplined about volume. But Professor McAlpine is not a fan of many of the chunky, overear headphones on the market because they emphasise bass, prompting listeners to crank up the volume. “You should think about getting some noise-cancellation headphones, because they stop you increasing the sound level of your audio to get above background noise,” he said.
What about kids?
Kids today are the first generation to have access to portable audio and headphones from birth. But experts say it’s too early to tell what impact a lifetime of headphone use will have. Parents who are concerned about their child’s exposure to noise can set restrictions to limit the maximum volume on most devices.
Apple allows parents to secure volume restrictions on their child’s phone or mp3 player with a special password. If your child likes to watch videos on their computer, you download web apps which let you restrict the volume setting. Professor McAlpine says everyone should approach noise the same way they would junk food, alcohol or sun exposure. “We need to go on a noise diet. We should be protecting ourselves from intense sound. If we don’t, in the future we’ll have big problems.”