Rex Banks, M.A.CCC-A Reg. CASLPO
Provincial Manager of Hearing Healthcare
Everyday as I ride to work on the subway, inevitably, my ears perk up like antennae as I peer over my newspaper and attempt to zoom in on and locate the source of the offending noise which has interrupted my morning "come to life" ritual. Across from me sits a teenager, lost in his own subway seat dancing studio, lip-syncing to music blasting in his ears, which is obviously part of his morning "come to life" ritual. Our worlds have now collided!
There is a growing concern amongst audiologists, physicians and other hearing healthcare providers that personal music players, also known as MP3 players, such as Apple Computer's iPod, are setting the stage for a generation of kids who will develop noise induced hearing loss due to blaring music into their ears. With some 42 million iPods flying off retail shelves and into the ear canals of North Americans since 2001, it is estimated that 28% of the population now owns one of these devices.
These concerns were first raised in the 1980's when the Sony Walkman entered the market. But today's portable stereos can hold thousands of songs and have longer-lasting batteries than older players. As a result, people are listening to the devices for much longer periods of time. Because hearing damage is directly related to the duration of exposure -- not just the volume -- one concern is that the steady, long-term exposure to even moderately loud music could contribute to premature hearing loss.
You may be wondering, just how loud is a personal music player such as the iPod? It is important to know that listening to any sound at 85 decibels and above for a prolonged period of time will cause permanent damage to your hearing. A test by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) showed that at peak levels, iPods can hit volumes of more than 120 decibels, which is louder than a chainsaw or a jackhammer! At 120 decibels, the maximum safe exposure time is only 8 seconds! The iPod earphones that fit inside the ear (known as ear buds) project sound directly to the eardrum and increase the volume by an additional 7 to 9 decibels.
So is it a problem? Research from the Oregon Health and Science University Tinnitus Clinic shows that 16 percent of 6 to19 year olds have early signs of hearing loss at the range most readily affected by loud sounds. One study reported that 39% of 18 to 24-year-olds listened to their MP3 players and iPods for more than an hour each day, with 13% listening for two hours or more.
A survey commissioned by the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association finds that more than half of high school students polled have lost some hearing because of how they use the music players. The survey found that high school students are more likely than adults to say they have experienced three of the four symptoms of hearing loss: turning up the volume on their TV or radio; saying "what" or "huh" during normal conversation and having tinnitus or ringing in the ears. No one really knows for certain how much hearing loss is attributed to personal music players because accumulated noise damage can take years before it causes noticeable problems. However, in general, audiologists report a trend of seeing "older ears on younger people" in their clinical practices.
One reason why teenagers and others use their iPods at such loud listening levels is because the in the canal ear buds that come with the devices do not block out or dilute background noise. Essentially, users are turning up their iPods to mask other sounds that they find less appealing. Additionally, in the days of the Walkman, the technology was such that music really didn't sound better when the device was cranked up to full volume. With the advent of digital technology though, feeding into the cravings of the play it louder generation is no longer a problem.
The following warning appears on Apple's iPod packaging: "permanent hearing loss may occur if earphones or headphones are used at high volume.'' Sounds good....right? But when was the last time your teenager read a user's manual? The truth is, there are no standards regulating the output of sound from personal music devices in North America. However in France, iPods have been limited to an output of 100 decibels. A new software upgrade is now available from Apple allowing users to set their own personal volume limit or can be password protected if parents want to set a limit on their child's iPod output. While this is a positive step, it's voluntary and not one that will likely be pursued by your average teenager. Recently, a Louisiana man filed the first lawsuit against Apple Computers claiming that iPods cause hearing loss in people that use them. He hopes to have his lawsuit certified as a class action suit. Time will tell if he succeeds or not and if this will make a difference in causing new legislation on the outputs of the devices.
So how long should one listen to their iPod...what's safe? An informal rule of thumb is the "60/60 rule" which states that you shouldn't play your iPod at more than 60% of the volume for more than 60 minutes at a time. Other ways you can know if your iPod is too loud include:
- You can't understand conversation going on around you.
- People near you can hear your music.
- You find yourself shouting instead of talking when you respond to people nearby.
Another informal quick test you can do before putting your iPod in your ear is to place the ear buds in your fist and adjust the volume to where you would like to hear the music. Close your fist....if you can hear the music, it's too loud. Lowering the volume on your personal music player under 85 decibels and listening to it for short durations of time are the best preventative measures you can take in protecting your hearing while using these devices. However trading in the little ear buds for sound-isolating earphones which reduce incoming noise so you don't have to turn the volume up as high is another proactive step you can take. The disadvantages to noise reduction type earphones are that they're larger and expensive, making them either unappealing or unobtainable by younger people.
Tomorrow I'll ride the subway again and I'm sure I'll see the familiar iPod cords dangling from the ears of an unsuspecting future client for the Audiology department. When I was a teenager, the loudest thing that anyone wore was a madress pants and Izod shirt ensemble. The only warning was the price tag, which caused more fear for my parents than for me. Today, teenagers wear iPods and parents are the ones still worrying about price, one that their kids may keep paying for years and years to come.