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Why Your Headphones Are Too Loud

Ever since the Walkman burst onto the scene, it seems as though teenagers have been listening to their music too loudly. Currently, 81% of teenagers listen to music with earphones, whether they’re listening to the latest Taylor Swift or more classic tunes from The Beatles. Teens tend to listen to their music at a high volume, which makes it easier to miss the warning signs linking headphone use to hearing loss.

Has increased headphone use led to higher rates of hearing loss?

Today, the rate of hearing loss among teenagers is about 30% higher than it was in the 1980s and 1990s. Some experts attribute this to teens’ increased use of headphones. However, teens aren’t buying it — studies show that only 8% of adolescents believe that hearing loss is a major health concern, yet 1 in 6 teens report that they experience hearing loss symptoms often or all of the time. Among all Americans, approximately 26 million Americans between the ages of 20 and 69 have noise induced hearing loss — the same number of people who use the Great Lakes for drinking water! Hearing loss is also consistently one of the most commonly reported injuries among U.S. Veterans, thanks to intense exposure to explosions and gunfire.

In hearing, sound travels into the ear and vibrates through various passageways, eventually rippling across the inner ear’s hair cells, sending electrical impulses which the brain recognizes as sound. Hearing loss from excessive noise is largely related to these hair cells in the inner ear. Long term exposure to sounds over 85 decibels can cause hearing loss, and noise-induced hearing loss can also be caused by a one-time exposure to an intensely loud noise.

Dr. Sreekant Cherukuri, a board-certified otolaryngologist based in Chicago, notes that teens need to realize that we only have a set number of inner ear hair cells. “They do not grow back. Listening to loud music right now may not seem like a big deal but hair cells are still dying. As teens get older, they may experience accelerated hearing loss in middle age caused by activities when they were teenagers.”

What does 85 decibels sounds like?

It’s the volume of heavy city traffic. A motorcycle engine clocks in at 95 decibels, and a police car, ambulance, or fire siren is around 120 decibels. Fireworks, meanwhile, are about 150 decibels. But an MP3 player turned up to maximum volume? That’s 115 decibels — barely softer than a siren.

When listened to at maximum volume, MP3 players and other digital music devices make as much noise as a live rock concert. However, while 89% of headphone users turn up the volume to combat ambient noise on the street, Dr. Cherukuri advises that listeners keep it at a volume where they can hear someone speak at a conversational level from three feet away; if you can’t do that, the music is too loud. And adjust your volume quickly; studies have shown that at very high volumes, hearing loss can occur after just eight minutes of listening!

A good rule of thumb to keep in mind?

The 60/60 Rule — listen for no more than 60 minutes a day at no more than 60% volume, and take a break.

If you use earbud headphones, keep in mind that they have the potential to cause more damage to hearing than traditional over-the-ear headphones. This is because they’re worn directly in the ear canal and can produce 7-9 decibels higher sound. Earbuds also filter less ambient noise, contributing to the tendency to turn volume up in situations where you may already be at high-risk for hearing loss.

Dr. Cherukuri personally prefers over-the-ear headphones for his listening pleasure, so that the sound pressure level in the ear isn’t increased as quickly as in-the-ear headphones. He also advocates the use of one of the many available apps that prevent the volume from exceeding a preset decibel level to protect your ears.

So the next time you’ve got your headphones in, and you’re jamming out to your secret guilty pleasure song, double-check your decibel levels to make sure you’re able to hear that song clearly for the rest of your life!