Professors at Northern Illinois University have expressed their concern with students who spend too much time listening to music through their earbuds. Their comments and concerns have been published in the university’s student-run Northern Star newspaper. The professors are not concerned about earbuds because they distract students from their schoolwork, but because they can cause serious and irreversible hearing loss – even in young people (http://northernstar.info/campus/can-you-hear-me-now-professors-talk-lasting-effects-of/article_357be8dc-c50d-11e7-8b63-33a3fbe83efa.html). The professors at NIU are not the only professionals warning young people about the damaging effects of excess earbud use. In fact, a World Health Organization 2015 survey found that over ½ of the young people surveyed regularly listen to music at unsafe levels and an estimated 1.1 billion young people are at risk of hearing loss because of personal listening devices and earbud use (http://www.who.int/mediacentre/news/releases/2015/ear-care/en/).
What's the problem with earbuds?
To understand how listening to music frequently and at high volumes can harm your hearing, one must first understand how we actually hear. First, sounds come in through the ear canal where they are met by delicate and microscopic hair cells that convert sound vibrations into electrical signals. These electrical signals are then sent to our brain for processing, where our brain coverts the signals into meaningful sounds. It’s a pretty impressive system, especially considering the entire process happens in a matter of nanoseconds. Noises at decibels 85 dBA or higher can cause permanent damage to the delicate hair cells that play such an important role in our hearing. Once these hair cells are damaged, they can never be repaired, once they are gone, they are gone. Combine this damage with the fact that earbuds sit so far into the ear canal and blast these sounds directly into the eardrum, it becomes easier to understand how they can be considered so dangerous.
How loud are earbuds reallllllly?
You may be thinking, “there is no way earbuds can even get loud enough to damage my hearing”! While this is a common misunderstanding, most earbuds and headphones can blast out sounds at about 110 dBA when they are on full volume. This is considered the equivalent of strapping a power saw to each ear. It is also important to remember that hearing loss can happen from a combination of different listening environments. If you listen to your earbuds at high volume and also work in a noisy environment like a bar, as well as frequently attend concerts, you are exposing your ears to excess noise levels for many hours of the day. The earbuds are just one factor that could be harming your hearing.
Okay, I'm sufficiently worried. What to do?
You don’t need to trash your earbuds and revert to listening to records in order to protect your hearing. There are many steps you can take to ensure you are listening to your earbuds at a safe volume. The easiest way to determine of your earbuds are too loud, is to set them at the volume you usually listen to and hold them at an arm’s length away. If you can hear your music from this distance, then they are too loud. Experts also recommend following the 60/60 rule. The 60/60 rule means that an earbud user should limit their listening to 60 minutes or less per day, at 60% of their device’s max volume. If you blast your earbuds in order to drown out the sounds around you, then noise cancelling headphones may be a good investment for you. Although they are pricy, they use technology to block outside noise while allowing you to listen to your music at safe volumes. Noise cancelling headphones will pay for themselves tenfold if they mean you don’t have to treat hearing loss at an early age!