The World Health Organization has warned that millions of young people may be listening to music too loud. Are we all damaging our hearing by spending so many waking hours with two miniature speakers stuffed into our ears?
You live in a big city, which means you spend 75 percent of your day with earbuds lodged in your external auditory meatus. You listen to podcasts on the subway, and queue up a Spotify playlist to stay focused amidst your workplace’s open office plan. After work you exercise to the sweet sounds of EDM and bass-heavy pop, and then commute home to NPR updates. Finally in for the night, you might log into HBO Go and, so as not to disturb your roommate, plug in your buds and snuggle up with your laptop. As you take out your sweat-encrusted earbuds and put them on the nightstand, you wonder: Are you damaging your hearing by spending most of your waking hours with two miniature speakers stuffed in your ears?
What kind of sounds lead to hearing loss?
In 2015, the World Health Organization issued a statement echoing your mom, warning that 1.1 billion young people are at risk of permanent hearing loss due to loud music from personal devices and the decibel levels at events. The WHO analyzed data from studies in “middle- and high-income countries” and found that almost 50 percent of residents 12 to 35 were exposed to unsafe noise levels from personal devices like smart phones and iPods, and 40 percent got a potentially damaging earful at venues like bars, nightclubs, sports stadiums and concert spaces.
How loud is too loud? The WHO said that noise levels of more than 85 decibels were dangerous during an eight-hour duration, like a work shift, and 100 decibels shouldn’t be endured for more than 15 minutes.
“There are no specific tests or measurements for earbuds, but the rules are the same,” says Richard Nass, an ear, nose, and throat specialist and clinical associate professor at the NYU School of Medicine. The proximity of the noise source is not a known factor for hearing loss; the main factors are decibel level and duration, Nass says. “I’d say 80 [decibels] is the cutoff” for when a person should limit exposure, Nass added.
Examples of noises that reach 80 decibels include a blender, a household garbage disposal, an average factory floor, or a freight train passing by from 15 meters away. Hundred-decibel-level sounds include a motorcycle, farm tractor or jackhammer at close proximity, or a commercial aircraft coming in for landing at one nautical mile away. So if you have something that sounds that loud coming through your earbuds—like thrash metal or a Game of Thrones battle scene or Jim Cramer—you should turn down the volume or limit your time listening. An MP3 played at maximum volume through earbuds can reach 105 decibels.
Also, like most bodily systems, the auditory system has ways of letting one know it’s in distress: If you have ringing in your ears or temporary threshold shift—short-term hearing loss after exposure to a loud noise—you’re overdoing it.