Can You Hear the Music? – MP3 Players Yield Hearing-Impaired Youth

They always said that listening to music too loudly would cause permanent damage. As it turns out, they were right. Researchers at Tel Aviv University (Israel) published a recent study that investigated the music-listening habits of young people (pictured above: a young person). A quarter of teens (aged 13-17) were said to be at risk of early hearing loss because of personal listening devices. “In 10 or 20 years, it will be too late for a generation of young people suffering from hearing problems much earlier than expected from natural aging,” says lead author Chava Muchnik, giving new urgency to the phrase “can you hear the music?”

Turn It Down

The study was done in two parts. First, they gave a questionnaire to 289 teens, finding that the teens, unsurprisingly, listen to music loudly when left to their own devices. They also showed a lack of understanding of the risks involved in doing so. In part two, the researchers had 11 participants listen to MP3 players in a quiet setting, whereas 74 others listened to MP3 players in a setting with background noise.

The children listened at whatever volume they wanted, and acoustic measurements were recorded. “More than 25% of the participants in the noisy condition were found to be at risk according to occupational damage risk criteria NIOSH, 1998.” An explanation of that criteria can be found here.

According to a Kaiser Family Foundation (a U.S. non-profit foundation) report, children listened to music 47 more minutes daily in 2010 than they did in 2005. This is fairly alarming, especially if that number is growing; and it probably is. Not to mention the fact that millions of people turn up every year to see live rock shows, which is pretty much the worst thing you can do to your ear, short of jamming it with a Q-tip.

Why is This Happening?

Our ears have not evolved to compensate for the technological revolution that brought us personal music players. Therefore, our ears hardly stand a chance. This is what performers often face, such as American rapper, who now suffers from tinnitus – a constant ringing in his ears. And here in Japan, the “empress of pop,” Ayumi Hamasaki, revealed a few years ago that she has actually become deaf in one of her ears. This is of course because of her extravagant and impressively frequent live shows.

However, I want to emphasize that what we’re really talking about is behavior. You can’t blame MP3 players for damaging someone’s ears just like you can’t blame video games for making someone act out in violence. It’s not nearly so simple. The responsibility is with the person who makes the decision to engage in this behavior.

I don't know what lame rock concerts these researchers go to, but 105 decibels is unrealistically conservative

After all, the exact kind of environmental hearing loss that the Israeli researchers were investigating can be seen in people who don’t listen to music. Anything that makes a loud sound – a gunshot, a motorcycle, or a really annoying person – can be unsafe for your ears. Just remember, it’s not just the sound itself but also the duration that matters. A gunshot may be bad, but being near the loudspeakers at a rock concert is probably a lot worse, because the sound is incessant.

What Can Be Done?

Muchnak suggests that manufacturers should adopt existing European standards which limit the output of listening devices players to 100 decibels – the unit of measurement for the intensity of sound – which is still 15 more than is considered safe. To put this into perspective, some of the devices on the market today go up to 129 decibels.

I like what one writer said on “Rock concerts last a couple hours, too, and can reach up to 140 decibels. Most teenagers don’t like to wear earplugs at concerts because ‘that’s what old people do.’ Well, if you keep up this exposure to high volumes, you’ll have the hearing of an old person.”

Of course, the other alternative would be to just keep the volume down. But I don’t think anyone actually expects that to happen. “Eighty percent of teens use their PLDs regularly, with 21% listening from one to four hours daily and 8% listening more than four hours consecutively.” It doesn’t seem like leaving this in children’s hands is going to work. Perhaps,  like Muchnak is thinking, there may be a hearing-loss epidemic at some point in the next few generations. Sad, but possible.

So if you are one of those people who listen to music really loudly all the time…

Well… enjoy it while it lasts.

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One Response to Can You Hear the Music? – MP3 Players Yield Hearing-Impaired Youth

  1. Mr. G says:

    I have heard of a way to determine whether or not the music that you are listening to is too loud, though I am not too sure if it is true. When you play the music with the earphones in your ears, snap your fingers in front of your face. If you can hear the fingers snapping while the music is playing, then the sound level is safe.

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