Is Modern Technology Damaging Our Hearing?
We’re all familiar with the sight of young people permanently attached to their phones, often literally, via a pair of headphones plugged into their ears. But could this really result in loss of hearing?
According to data collected by the World Health Organization (WHO) this is precisely the case. If current trends continue it seems many of these headphones will have to be replaced by hearing aids in the future.
The WHO research has found that almost 50% of teenagers and young people between the ages of 12-35 years are exposed to unsafe levels of sound from the use of personal music players.
And this is not the only risk factor. The same research shows that around 40% of young people are exposed to potentially damaging levels of sound at entertainment venues, which amounts to more than a billion people who are at risk of hearing loss and wearing hearing aids.
How to prevent hearing loss
According to the UK NHS Choices website the risk of your hearing being damaged by loud noises depends on how loud the noises are and how long you’re exposed to them. Experts agree that continued exposure to noise at or above 85dB (similar to a lawn mower or loud traffic) can, over time, cause hearing loss.
How loud is too loud?
• If you can’t have a comfortable conversation with someone who is two metres away from you when watching TV or listening to music, you should turn the volume down.
• You shouldn’t have dull hearing or ringing in your ears after listening to music.
The WHO recommendations state that teenagers and young people can better protect their hearing by doing the following:
• Keeping the volume down on personal audio devices
• Wearing earplugs when visiting noisy venues
• Using carefully fitted, and, if possible, noise-cancelling earphones/headphones
• Limiting the time spent engaged in noisy activities by taking short listening breaks and restricting the daily use of personal audio devices to less than one hour
• Monitoring safe listening levels with the help of smartphone apps
• Heeding the warning signs of hearing loss and getting regular hearing check-ups
What is being done to help protect us?
In 2009 the European Commission issued a mandate for new safety standards for personal music players to update the standards set out in the 1995 regulatory framework. None of the current EU standards prescribes any maximum pressure limit nor require any specific labelling in respect of noise emissions, but require that a statement be put in the instruction manual to warn against adverse effects of exposure to excessive sound pressure.
In October 2008, a study by the Scientific Committee on Emerging and Newly Identified Health Risks (SCENIHR) commissioned by the EU concluded that personal music player listeners risk both hearing and non-hearing problems. The most worrying conclusion is that there is a risk of permanent hearing loss, if listening for more than one hour per day each week at high volume (exceeding 89 decibels) for at least 5 years. This applies to 10 million people in the EU, the majority of whom are likely to be young people.
The maximum sound levels of personal music players on the market currently range between 80-115 dB(A) across different devices, and different earphones may increase sound level by up to 7-9 dB(A).
What is a safe sound level for personal music players?
There is no single safe sound level because the risk of hearing damage depends on two factors:
1. The sound level
2. The length of the listening time:
• for sound levels below 80 dB(A) – a level that is roughly equivalent to traffic noise from a nearby road – the probability of acquiring a hearing loss is negligible. Sound levels below 80 dB(A) might therefore be regarded as safe, no matter how long (daily or weekly) a person listens to a personal music player.
• for sound levels above 80 dB(A), the listening time has to be limited in order for them to be safe. As the sound level increases, the safe listening time decreases.
Are young people too busy listening to music to pay attention to health recommendations?
Unfortunately, young people are not known for their willingness to listen to well-meaning advice or for thinking about the long-term consequences of their actions. As things stand these warnings aren’t even required appear on the packaging which you’re likely to look at before buying a pair of earphones. Therefore it appears likely that, despite these warnings, a significant proportion of the 1.1 billion youngsters from the WHO study will nevertheless suffer from loss of hearing. As hearing loss is permanent and irreversible many of these young people will probably need to use hearing aids at some point in the future.