Hearing loss among young people is on the rise, and a likely culprit is the increasing use of
headphones -- and especially earbuds.
A 2010 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association compared two surveys gauging hearing loss in American adolescents, one conducted between 1984 and 1986, the other between 2005 and 2006. The study found that hearing loss had shot up 31 percent between those time periods -- in the later study, almost 20 percent of teens showed some level of hearing loss, compared with 15 percent two decades earlier.
The increase in teen hearing loss is not surprising, given the increasing prevalence of headphones. With the advent of mp3 players and ubiquity of cell phones that play music, people are increasingly listening to music through their headphones. And the sleek earbuds popularized by companies like Apple seem to be the sound conductors of choice for the younger generations especially.
In 2015, the World Health Organization warned nearly 50 percent of young adults (aged 12-35) are exposed to unsafe levels of sound from personal audio devices.
According to the National Institutes of Health, repeated exposure to sounds over 85 decibels can cause hearing loss (volumes of 85 decibels or lower are considered safe). At their highest volume, the decibel levels of modern mp3 players usually reach 120 decibels. Played right next to the eardrum, such levels of noise can be especially dangerous. Thus, it is recommended that users listen to their mp3 players at two-thirds the maximum volume or lower, or use volume-control headphones that filter excessive noise.
Another recommendation is to avoid listening to music for long stretches of time without a break. If you’ve been listening for an hour, it is best to take at least a fifteen minute break before you start listening again. Many doctors recommend the 60/60 rule: listen to your music player at no higher than 60 percent full volume, and for a maximum of 60 minutes at a time.
Earbuds are more likely to cause hearing loss than traditional headphones for several reasons. One is that they go directly into the ear canal which, according to the journal Medical Daily, naturally adds about 9 decibels of volume. Second, they tend to do a poor job of canceling outside noise, thus inviting the user to crank up the volume. Finally, many earbuds have poor sound quality, which also makes the user more likely to compensate by turning up the noise.