As it turns out, your parents may have been right: wearing headphones and listening to music at top volume can cause detectable hearing loss. Recent studies show that one out of every five teenagers has a measurable hearing loss, and experts trace the damage to headphones. The rate of teen hearing loss is about 30% higher than it was three decades ago, and music listeners may not realize the damage that headphones — also known as “ear buds” — can cause.
The loudness of everyday sounds and noises is typically measured in decibels. A whisper is about 30 decibels, while an everyday, spoken conversation clocks in around 60 decibels. A motorcycle is more than 100 decibels, and a jet engine is about 140 decibels. The frightening fact is that any sound louder than about 100 decibels can cause permanent hearing loss, and the top volume of handheld music-playing devices is actually 120 decibels.
Equal to the noise level of a rock and roll concert, 120 decibels can cause hearing loss in less than two hours. About one-third of all American senior citizens have the need for assistive listening devices, and many attribute their hearing loss to the music concerts they attended when they were younger. Teens with hearing loss may not realize that they have a problem right away, but may need to consult about being fitted for digital hearing aids.
Of course, noise is an inescapable part of everyday life. People in large urban areas may take trains or subways to work — 95 decibels — and some workers have jobs where they are routinely exposed to potentially damaging noise. Being fitted for custom hearing protection devices such as ear plugs and noise-canceling headphones are both elementary safety precautions at noisy job sites.
Should we have to take safety precautions just to listen to music? Unfortunately, handheld music-players are programmed with the capacity to play music at volumes that can do serious hearing damage. Hearing loss can remain unnoticed for years, and there are millions of teens and adults with hearing loss who do not seek treatment. Sometimes, hearing loss can be accompanied by a ringing sound in the ear, but tinnitus is not always present.
Taking the steps to safeguard hearing and to minimize disruptive — and potentially damaging — ambient noise can be important at every age, but for 20% of American teens, it may be time to start investigating digital hearing aids and assistive listening devices. Teenagers may not realize that even a low-level hearing loss could cause them to miss more than half of what their teachers say in class; there are assistive listening devices and larger, wireless amplification systems that may be effective in allowing teens to function in class and at work. Music is a wonderful hobby, but it is also important to know that silence is golden.