Since COVID-19, I’ve been using my headphones more than ever. Online classes, Zoom calls, FaceTime, dancing around my room to Taylor Swift’s Midnights—there’s no love like the one I have for my AirPods. And it’s safe to assume that I’m not the only one currently in a committed relationship with their pair of headphones.
This is why, when I spotted a headline that over a billion young people are at risk of hearing loss because of loud music, I was shook. We’re talking about something that could affect everyone I know—and you, too. The British Medical Journal (BMJ) has recently published a paper urging governments to prioritise “safe listening policies” in order to help people learn more about how to look after their hearing.
I’ll be honest, after my initial panic, my immediate thoughts were: a) I’m not going to stop going to loud concerts and b) ‘Anti-Hero’ was made to be played at full blast. Anything less just feels disrespectful.
How can I live in a world where I can’t hit the front row at gigs, and keep the volume to a level my mother would be happy with? Don’t break my heart, BMJ—that’s a job I reserve for Taylor, and Taylor only. There has to be some middle ground, I figured. So, I checked out the World Health Organization (WHO) website and did some digging.
The initial figures make for pretty scary reading. Among teenagers and young adults aged 12 to 35 years in middle and high-income countries, nearly 50 per cent are exposed to unsafe levels of sound from personal audio devices. Around 40 per cent of them are exposed to potentially damaging sound levels at clubs and bars. Ouch. What’s life like for those people?
I spoke to Holly Watkins—whose real name has been changed upon request—a 29-year-old recording artist who’s suffered from tinnitus for about three years. That’s when you experience constant ringing, buzzing, hissing or roaring noises in one or both of your ears—noises which come from inside your brain, rather than the outside world. In some cases, the noise never goes away. Watkins grew up going to loud concerts a few nights a week, then blaring music at home and in her headphones “constantly.”
“It drives me crazy, really. Some days are better than others. I have to listen to a white noise app or an audiobook when I go to sleep, otherwise I can be awake for hours. On bad days, it’s a whistling sound that can feel so loud, it still surprises me that I’m the only one that can hear it. The irony is that it makes me want to listen to music, or podcasts, all the time, to drown it out… which is bad for my hearing. It’s depressing, in all honesty. Especially because music is my job and the thing I love most. I worry it will get worse and worse,” she shared.
I asked Watkins if there was anything she’d have done differently if she could go back in time. “I do wish I’d worn earplugs at festivals and gigs. There were only bad quality foam ones around when I was younger, and you just couldn’t hear the music, so nobody wore them. And [I wish I had] turned down the volume when I was playing back my own music, all day, every day, in the studio. It might have made a difference,” she confided.
If you already feel like you can relate or you’re slowly starting to take fright over your own hearing, then listen up: there are a few simple hacks that can help keep it intact.
– Over 430 million people worldwide currently have disabling hearing loss. Young people are particularly vulnerable because we’re using our phones and earphones so much, as well as going to concerts and festivals more often than older generations.
– Noise-induced hearing loss is irreversible—meaning once the damage is done, you can’t get that level of hearing back. That’s why it’s vital to try everything possible to hold onto the hearing ability we currently have.
– The louder the noise and the longer the exposure, the longer it takes to recover.
– That muffled or ringing sound in your ears after Tay-Tay’s Reputation Stadium Tour? Yup, that was hearing damage—in some cases, temporary tinnitus. Our ears are full of hair cells (similar to blades of grass) which bend if sound is very loud. After a recovery period, they become straight again, but if too many cells are damaged, some will die. In the worst cases, it can take about a week for hearing to return to normal. Any longer than that and you should book an appointment with a hearing specialist right away.
– Listening to loud music and noises while you’re young affects your hearing ability when you’re old. Using bad (or zero) hearing protection in our youth can lead to significant communication difficulties much later in life. Eek.
In case you don’t believe me, I called up Lee Fletcher (RHAD), (BSHAA), Principal Audiologist at Regain Hearing and asked him what he makes of all this.
“I’ve been promoting the use of ear protection since I started working as an audiologist, and have seen first-hand how hearing can be permanently damaged due to regular exposure to loud noise levels. The use of headphones and earbuds to listen to music at noise levels of 80 decibels and over and exposure to noise levels of 100 decibels at nightclubs and music venues is common for young people,” Fletcher first explained.
“To explain why this is harmful, let’s look at how noise levels work in real life. A conversation will emit a safe noise level of around 60 decibels. Regular exposure to noise levels over 70 decibels for long periods is likely to cause permanent hearing damage,” he continued.
Pretty worrying, right? So, I continued my research, in hopes of finding some preventative measures. How can we protect ourselves from these day-to-day risks?
There’s a simple way to think about this. Each day, we can give ourselves a daily dose of safe listening. This depends on the intensity (loudness), duration (length of time) and frequency (how often) of the exposure.
Fletcher recommended to “limit the use of earphones and earbuds to an hour at a time.” Wishful thinking, but we ought to at least try.
Step outside for short listening breaks at clubs, bars and events—this will bring down the overall extended duration of your noise exposure. Move! away! from! loud! sounds! and! sources!
The WHO states that 85 decibels is considered the highest safe exposure level—up to a maximum of eight hours. Fletcher’s expert advice? “Never turn the volume to more than halfway up.”
If you buy the right brand and wear them properly, earplugs can reduce sound exposure by 5 to 45 decibels which could make a massive difference. If you work in a noisy environment, the specialist advised that it’s even more important to invest in custom-made earplugs. They’ll be more comfortable for longer-term wear and could even make for a bizarre yet thoughtful Christmas present.
Try Vibes High Fidelity, Loop or Decibullz. They’re expertly designed to protect your ears while still letting you hear miss Swift do her thing.
You can actually view your headphone exposure levels over a time period. You might not like what you see, but the good news is, it’s never too late to start listening safely.
Have a professional check how your hearing is doing, as often as they recommend.
Long story short, turn the volume way down, reduce the time you spend listening to loud music each day, and dance far away from the loudspeaker.
Want to know more? Read the WHO’s guide to safe listening.