It may have been obnoxious, I know, but when I was a precocious teenager I used to boldly approach random people, who thought it was totally acceptable to walk down the street blaring some appalling music (whether it be droning speed metal or New Kids on the Block) and yell above the din in my most friendly and sarcastic voice, “Wow! Thanks for playing that song, I think I could safely say it is everyone’s favorite.” Again, I realize this was obnoxious behavior, but I was a teenager, and whatever I was doing on behalf of the deafened populace, wasn’t nearly as arrogant as the itinerant sonic blasts emanating from these boom boxes.
Now the sight of someone making their sonic imprint on the urban landscape is far more rare (unless it is coming from a car) and more often than not people are “plugged in” or “tethered” to their iPods and MP3 players via ear buds or headphones. Teenagers, who a quarter century ago might have been blowing the decibels out of a Sanyo Box perched on their shoulder, are now blowing the decibels directly into their ear drums and sparing us the aural and sonic boom that make up contemporary pop music (I am not saying I don’t like pop music, or even loud music, I just don’t like it when it is compulsory listening). While they may be sparing us, they are certainly not sparing themselves. As reported by The New York Times, one in ﬁve teenagers in America can’t hear rustles or whispers (as was previously reported by The Journal of the American Medical Association). These teenagers exhibit what’s known as slight hearing loss, which means they often can’t make out consonants like T’s or K’s, or the plinking of raindrops. The word “talk” can sound like “aw.” The number of teenagers with hearing loss — from slight to severe — has jumped 33 percent since 1994. And a European Report from last year claimed that headphone users who routinely blast music at high volumes for more than an hour a day risk permanent hearing loss after five years.
While certainly teenagers are not the only ones in danger of doing irreparable damage to their ears through the irresponsible use of headphones (plenty of adults are likely blowing holes clean through their heads right now with the use of dueling ear buds) it is teenagers that will have to live with the results for far longer than anyone well into their 30s. Headphones are seemingly great, as they allow the listener to drown out all of the extraneous noise and have their own little private auditory experience without having to listen to the person next to them yammer on about Lupus, or how they are waiting for that awesome discount from Groupon before they buy their next pair of shoes. But headphones, and the relatively new noise canceling headphones that are all the rage, don’t always work so well, and users tend to jack up the volume to get that proper noise canceling result (in this category, ear buds do a substandard job in canceling out noise, whereas over the over the ear headphones are more effective) and as a result wind up slowly canceling out some of their hearing.
It is enough to make you long for the days of the communal music experience. Not necessarily the one where listening was compulsory (like the boom box incidents I mentioned above) but an experience in where music, or just plain audio, listening was just more social. At this point, even cars are equipped with AV systems that provide personal and individual AV options for each passenger. Choice is great, but at what cost?
As for saving your ears, or your child’s ears: one obvious thing to do is to simply turn it down. Easier said than done, I know, but sage advice. The other thing is to throw away the ear buds and invest in some high-quality, noise-canceling headphones that will provide clear audio without having to pump up the volume to drown out interference from the rest of the world. Also, believe it or not, the National Institute of Health has put together a fairly informative website, for both parents and children, on the subject of hearing loss and how to protect children’s hearing.