Your headphones could be making you deaf

In the modern world, many of us are wearing headphones all day, every day. But experts fear our constant exposure to audio played straight into our ears could be creating a prematurely deaf generation of Australians.

Story by ABC medical reporter Sophie Scott and Rebecca Armitage.

“We are very concerned. Most people who are working or travelling are now wearing ear buds, But they don’t necessarily know the sound levels they’re exposing themselves to,” Professor David McAlpine, director of research at the Australian Hearing Hub, said.

The World Health Organisation estimates more than 1 billion young people are in danger of hearing loss from portable audio devices, including smart phones.

But it’s not just teenagers who are at risk. Anyone who uses headphones for more than 90 minutes each day could be jeopardising their hearing.

A 2017 study by National Acoustic Laboratories found one in 10 Australians regularly cranks up the volume on their headphones to more than 85 decibels — the equivalent to standing next to a running lawn mower.

“When hearing damage starts, then you’re really on an irreversible journey. If you don’t protect your hearing, you’re going to damage it for life,” Professor McAlpine said.

It’s currently estimated one in six Australians will suffer some degree of hearing loss during their lives. That’s expected to rise to one in four by 2050, thanks to an ageing population and our regular exposure to dangerously loud noises.

The Australian Hearing Hub recommends using headphones for no more than 90 minutes a day, and the volume should never go beyond 80 per cent. A good rule of thumb is that if others can hear the sounds coming out of headphones while you are wearing them, they are too loud. And it doesn’t matter whether it’s death metal or classical music — what’s important is the volume and duration of your listening session.

“The price doesn’t really strongly correlate with the sound quality or the protection, so you have to be very careful about what you’re actually buying,” Professor McAlpine said.

The standard ear buds that come with your phone are okay — as long as you are disciplined about volume. But Professor McAlpine is not a fan of many of the chunky, over-ear headphones on the market because they emphasise bass, prompting listeners to crank up the volume.

“You should think about getting some noise-cancellation headphones, because they stop you increasing the sound level of your audio to get above background noise,” he said.

What about kids? Kids today are the first generation to have access to portable audio and headphones from birth. But experts say it’s too early to tell what impact a lifetime of headphone use will have on these digital natives.

Parents who are concerned about their child’s exposure to noise can set restrictions to limit the maximum volume on most devices. Apple allows parents to secure volume restrictions on their child’s phone or mp3 player with a special password. If your child likes to watch videos on their computer, you download web apps on Chrome, which lets you restrict the volume setting.