The month of May signifies Better Hearing Month, raising awareness about issues relating to speech and hearing problems. And there’s one contributor to hearing loss you may not have considered: your headphones.
In a 2019 report, the World Health Organisation found that nearly half of 12 – 35 year olds are at risk of hearing loss due to prolonged and excessive exposure to loud sounds. This includes sounds listened to through smartphones and audio devices.
We spoke to Jodi Sasaki-Miraglia AuD – Audiologist and Director of Professional Training and Education at hearing aid manufacturer Widex – about headphones, hearing loss and what you can do to prevent long-term harm.
1.1 billion young people at risk of developing hearing loss
Jodi Sasaki-Miraglia works as an audiologist, a hearing healthcare professional whose focus is to find solutions to auditory problems presented by a patient. We asked her why such a large number of young people are at risk of suffering hearing damage.
“A lot of it has to do with the fact younger kids are exposed to loud noise and they just don’t know that it’s bad for their ears [and] overall health”.
“You don’t realise that loud music will damage your hearing forever and, if it does, then all of a sudden your social engagement will be affected down the road, hands down”, said Sasaki-Miraglia.
“There’s plenty of research and, unfortunately, I see plenty of people in the clinic that come in in their 20’s now, 30’s – before it was like in their 50’s – now they’re coming in their 30’s saying “I can’t hear my kids, I can’t hear my friends” and then we check the hearing and, lo and behold, there is the start of hearing loss. Whereas, we would have seen a couple of decades ago we wouldn’t have seen that until people turned 50 or 60”.
Headphones have taken on a more prevalent role in our lives
The pandemic caused many of us to reach for our headphones while we worked and studied from home. Some have gone from wearing headphones during their commute to keeping them on all day for Zoom calls and to maintain focus in noisy households.
“If you think about the shutdown in 2020, so many people went under headphones”, said Sasaki-Miraglia. “I have two kids that are still at home doing online learning and because we live in a smaller home they are now under headphones for six, seven hours a day and that was never the intent, right?”
Wearing headphones for hours on end could have very real consequences on our ears in the long term.
What makes headphones risky?
Hearing damage comes down to the length of time and the intensity at which you listen through your headphones.
This becomes an issue when users aren’t aware of how loud their headphones go, and audio brands face little regulation when it comes to setting limits. Most headphones also aren’t designed to be worn for extended periods of time.
“Some of the brands will put a little rating saying “oh, you know the headphones won’t go above 70 or they won’t go above 80”, but the general public doesn’t know what that number means”, explained Sasaki-Miraglia.
“Is 70 a good number? Is 80 a good number? Is 100 a good number? There’s no education around that and there’s no standardisation”.
The World Health Organisation has discussed coming up with an industry standard, but many are still in the dark about what level is safe to listen at.
“To me, it’s sort of like a food grid that shows you the fat and the calories and whatever”, said Sasaki-Miraglia.
“Why not have a generic box that everything in electronics uses to have a safe level where you know it says it’ll go max to here but you should set it here? From a dB perspective, typically anything under 80dB tends to be safer for a longer period of time. But again, nobody knows – what is 80dB? How do I measure that? How do I know?”
Not all headphones are equal
While a headphones’ safety relies on the regulations (or lack thereof) designed to protect our ears, some types could pose more of a risk than others.
“In-ear [headphones] probably could potentially be more dangerous because it is sitting closer to your ear canal and your eardrum”, warned Sasaki-Miraglia.
“So, the closer that sound deposit, the more potential you’re exposed to a louder level”.
Noise-cancelling headphones, meanwhile, could be your best option if you’re guilty of turning up the volume to block out the world.
“The headphones that have noise-cancelling that go over the ear – the supra-aurals – block out enough outside noise that hopefully you don’t have to turn up the music as loud”.
The most important factors are time and volume
While the type of headphones you use could affect your ear health, Sasaki-Miraglia maintains that the most important advice is to keep an eye on the clock and the volume (in decibels – dB) you listen at.
“Because we don’t know everyone’s usage, it’s sort of hard to go “oh, just use these headphones, it’ll be okay”, because if you crank up the headphones a little too much and you look at the time that you’re using it throughout the day or the total of the week, that sound dose can add up and damage your hearing”.
The audiologist recommends headphone wearers follow the 60/60 rule. This involves reducing the volume slider on your phone or laptop to 60% and only listening to music or podcasts for a total of 60 minutes a day.
iPhone users can also set a limit in their phone settings to prevent their music from going above 75dB and measure their dosage of loud music over seven days.
“It comes down to, and it seems very simple, but you’ve just got to turn it down – just a little bit. You know, if you are shouting or somebody can hear your music bleed out of your headphones, it’s too loud”.
What can audio brands do to reduce the potential for harm?
While some audio brands, such as Puro, have introduced headphones with volume-limiting tech built-in, many still have a way to go when it comes to addressing long-term hearing damage.
“I feel like the consumer feels or hopes or assumes that the headphone industry is considerate of their health and that’s not the case, so I think back to that WHO suggestion, calling for industry to come up with a standard because the incidence of hearing loss continues to grow and grow”.
Sasaki-Miraglia also encourages major tech companies to raise awareness of the issue.
“Wouldn’t it be cool if somebody like Apple made it on the front screen going “hey, enjoy music but let’s do it safely”. It just maybe takes one big group to say that yeah you can listen to music, but let’s make it cool and safe. It would go such a long way”.
People need to understand the risks of listening to music too loud and for too long
The biggest problem is a lack of awareness and education around hearing damage and what causes it – especially at a young age.
“It’s just a matter of education”, explained Sasaki-Miraglia.
“If you turn things down a little bit, I don’t believe you would see this incidence in young people and in older people, because what happens is sometimes you can damage your hearing when you’re young and then it doesn’t have the social implications until 10 or 15 years later”.
“If we could prevent it from the beginning, I would be happy if I didn’t have a job in 40 years, 50 years. And yet, the trend is like audiologists still will have a job because we’re still having to treat people with noise-induced hearing loss that is one hundred percent avoidable”.