You get on the bus to work, and you turn on a podcast. At your office, you put on music to drown out your co-workers’ chatter. During your workout, you listen to some peppy beats on the treadmill — all using your handy headphones.
If you’re not careful, all that headphone use could lead to hearing damage, experts say.
What matters is the volume at which you’re listening and the length of time you wear them, as well as personal susceptibility to hearing damage, said Susan Scollie, director of the National Centre for Audiology at the Western University.
“I like to use a sun exposure analogy to help remember this,” she said. “I know that if it’s a high sun exposure day for example (…) that I personally am going to have a shorter period of time because the sun is intense before I’m going to get a sunburn.”
If you’re listening to your headphones at a high volume, you should use them for less time, said Bill Hodgetts, a professor of audiology at the University of Alberta.
“We take a level like 85 decibels and say that that level is generally safe for eight hours. And then every three decibels as you go up from that halves the amount of time you can spend in that environment.”
For reference, 85 decibels is about as loud as a noisy restaurant or heavy traffic, according to a HealthLink BC website. Noises above 85 decibels are generally considered harmful.
“If you’re listening to headphones at a level of 94, 95 decibels and you have them on all the time, then you’re definitely going to be causing potential damage to your hearing,” Hodgetts said.
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The problem is it can be hard to tell exactly how loud your music is. Most devices don’t tell you how many decibels your volume is set to, and different headphones will change the volume too, he said. Kids are also really good at getting around parental control settings that limit the volume, so they tend to be ineffective.
So you might have to rely on other people who overhear your beats, he said.
“If people are telling you it’s too loud, it’s too loud.”
The type of headphone you wear can make a difference too, Scollie said.
“There’s some types of headphones that can let sound go in around the headphone,” she said. “The sound is going to still go in the ears from the noise that’s all around you. And then you’re going to turn your music up to a louder level.”
A small study done by Hodgetts shows that people tended to listen at a higher volume when they were in a noisy environment, and when they were wearing earbud-style headphones as opposed to over-the-ear models.
Both he and Scollie recommend choosing headphones that physically block out external noise, either by sealing around your whole ear or plugging the ear canal, so you’re less tempted to turn your music up.
“Then the listening level that you’re using for your music is really going to be just about the music and not about the background noise that you’re covering up,” Scollie said.
All this headphone use could have an impact on your hearing down the road. In 2015, the World Health Organization estimated that 1.1 billion young people worldwide could be at risk of hearing loss due to unsafe listening practices, including using personal audio devices like smartphones. A 2017 literature review also found an association between the length of time using personal audio devices and hearing loss, though it noted that most evidence was of low quality.
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A recent Statistics Canada study found that young people were more likely to listen to music at loud volumes with headphones than older age groups, and were also more likely to report tinnitus, or ringing in the ears. They’re also more likely to attend loud concerts and sporting events too though, the study authors wrote.
Fortunately, Hodgetts said, most people are pretty good at keeping their listening volume to a reasonable level. “The vast majority of people don’t abuse the volume,” he said. “It’s the ones that do that we need to get the message to. The ones that you hear them walk by and you can tell what song is playing from their headphones.”
“I think we have to be cautious not to paint everyone or headphones in general as an evil tool for the ear, but rather encourage people to be mindful of the environment they’re in and of the level they’re setting their device at.”