Don’t sleepwalk into hearing loss – the damage is irreversible

It’s 1970 and like many teenagers, I was stationed in my bedroom playing Led Zeppelin as loud as I could get away with, much to the irritation of my parents and probably neighbours. (Sorry Dad!).

Since the audio amplifier became widely available in the 1950’s parents all over the world have been shouting the all too familiar phrase ‘turn it down’ through hostile teenage doors.

In general parents don’t like the music their children listen to and even if they did, certainly not at the child’s preferred volume. With the arrival of personal headphones came a heavy sigh of relief for parents all over the world. Little did we know that there was something more sinister hiding in our new found peace and quiet?

We swapped public listening for private listening much to the delight of parents everywhere but unfortunately, as is often the case we have solved one problem and caused another.

On the surface swapping an irritated parent and weekends of audio chaos for a quiet youngster immersed in their music or gaming may sound ideal, however these long periods of audio exposure are slowly crippling our children’s hearing.

A study in the US suggests that ‘tweenagers’ (these between 10 and 14 years of age) are spending an average of four hours per day on their devices, and much of this time includes the use of headphones. When you consider that the devices used can produce dose levels that are damaging after only 20 minutes a day we start to see a troubling picture emerging.

We have around 15,000 auditory hair cells in each ear at birth; you don’t get any more and when they are gone they are gone and so is your hearing. Most of us are familiar with the dangers of very loud sounds and the permanent damage they can cause. Less well known is that exposure to large sound doses regularly and repeatedly can cause irreparable damage to the hair cells within our ears. This damage takes longer to show up and may be ‘silently’ affecting us all.

So what is a sound dose? A sound dose is a complex calculation taking into account how long you listen for, how loud you listen and the energy content of what you listen to.

For example; speech is relatively low energy content so you can listen for a long period of time at a high volume level without experiencing a particularly high sound dose,

However my much loved Led Zeppelin music has a high energy content so will give you a high sound dose in a short period of time.

As a result of a number of high profile campaigns the majority of headphone users are now aware of the risks. However few of them act as the only tool available to them until recently, has been the simple volume level warning on their device, which, if obeyed makes the content inaudible in many listening situations.

The London Underground for example is so loud that many users are forced to ignore their devices warnings and turn their volume to a damaging level on a daily basis. Long term, this will damage your hearing for good.

So what’s to be done?

We clearly can’t stop headphone use, but we can perhaps be smart about it. Ideally you would manage your daily exposure to make sure that you don’t overdo it and that if you do at least you will know about it.

1. First thing to do would be to download a headphone hearing safeguarding app, such as HearAngel, which will give you information on your exposure, much as a Fit Bit monitors your physical activity, so you know when you are overdoing it and can make informed decisions. Some of these apps also have optional automatic protection and parental control features so you can safeguard your children’s hearing.

2. Secondly consider the headphones you use. If you listen, as about 30 per cent of people on public transport do, consider upgrading from your ear buds to some good quality over-ear headphones. The sound quality will usually be better and the over-ear cups will reduce the background noise so that you can listen at a lower level, extending your safe listening period.

3. Finally, if you travel on very noisy public transport, such as London Underground for example, you might want to consider getting some active noise cancelling headphones. These headphones use very clever electronics to reduce the background noise even more allowing you to further reduce your listening level and extend your safe listening period.

Please don’t sleepwalk into hearing loss, it takes a little while to become noticeable, but when you do notice it the damage is done and it is too late. No more beloved Led Zeppelin! Use the technology that is available to help you to protect yourself and most of all enjoy your listening.

Stephen Wheatley is a Co-Founder of HearAngel LimitEar, a company which was formed to eight years ago to develop technologies to protect the hearing of headphone users in the work environment.