Headphone listening has been popular for decades, since the advent of the Sony Walkman in the late 1970s. At the time that device came on the market, news outlets published numerous articles about the dangers of listening at high volume, and a measure of paranoia swept the population about the dangers of headphone listening.
How much of that paranoia was justified? Well, loud sound is certainly something to be cautious about. Even 85 dBA (decibels A-weighted) can cause some degree of permanent noise-induced hearing loss (NIHL) after about 8 hours of exposure, and for every additional 3 dBA of volume the safe listening period is cut in half. For small children, the decibel range is about 10 dBA lower, starting around 75 dBA. That’s just a bit louder than a group conversation.
Personal Listening Devices (PLDs) Are OK, at Safe Volumes
You see, it’s not the use of a personal listening device (PLD) like the Walkman that causes hearing loss in itself, but the volume at which we listen, and the length of time we do it. There has never been any problem with listening to music in headphones at a safe volume.
One cause for concern though—today’s PLDs like Apple’s iPhone have a maximum volume that is significantly higher than the original Walkman. The iPhone’s maximum volume can deliver about 102 dBA to our ears, which causes permanent hearing loss in only about 10 minutes.
It’s estimated that around 20% of people have measurable hearing loss by the time they reach the end of their teenage years. “Measurable” means we can see it on an audiogram (the printed result of a hearing exam), though it may not be noticeable to the person who has it. That might not sound like much of a problem, but if the practices that created that hearing loss in the first place are continued, it will add up to noticeable hearing loss before too long.
Then consider that most of us will experience age-related hearing loss at some point in our lives. If we’re adding age-related hearing loss—or “presbycusis”— to the NIHL we already have, it’s a recipe for serious concern.
How to Listen Safely to PLDs
There are a number of things we can do to set our kids up for a lifetime of safe listening enjoyment. The earlier we teach them the importance of protecting their hearing, the better-prepared they’ll be to protect themselves from the loud sounds they’re sure to experience throughout their lives.
Lead by Example – When you listen to music, whether in headphones or in the room, keep the volume at a safe level, and talk about why you’re setting it there. Whenever sound is too loud, protect your ears and your children’s ears and tell them why.
Start Quiet – Whenever you’re starting to listen, set the volume low, then turn it up just loud enough to hear it clearly.
Pay Attention to Background Sound – If there is a lot of background noise, it might be better not to listen to something additional, as it may be adding to an already dangerously loud environment, or contributing enough additional sound to create a dangerous listening environment.
Consider Headphones for Kids – A number of companies manufacture headphones that are designed to keep the volume at a safe level for kids. While these may be effective, some of them have been shown to limit the volume to a level that is still dangerous. Everyone is different and has different needs, but it may be more desirable to teach your children to listen safely of their own volition, rather than providing a limiting device.
Consider Noise-Canceling Tech – Noise-canceling headphones use microphones to pick up environmental sound, then produce an opposite-polarity version of that sound, such that it sums to zero by the time it reaches the eardrum. Essentially, the headphones produce the opposite of the sound in the environment, so when you add the two sounds together you get no sound at all. Effectiveness varies from device to device, but these can be a great way to reduce the volume of background sound such that desired content can be enjoyed at a lower volume.
Encourage LIstening Breaks – No matter the volume at which your kids might be listening, encourage them to take a break at least once every hour. This gives their ears a chance to “reset.” They’ll be less likely to experience hearing loss as a result of continuous listening, and they’ll be less likely to desire a higher volume when they return from the break.