Baby boomers regret smoking cigarettes (for obvious reasons), but what will millennials look back on and wonder, “What were we thinking?” Some would argue headphones, since they’ve quickly become a leading contributor to hearing loss. In an interview with NBC News, an ear, nose and throat specialist estimates that hearing loss among today’s teens is about 30 percent higher than in the 1980s and 1990s.
The decline of boom boxes, the growing availability of mobile devices and the shift toward open work spaces from individual offices are all reasons for this, and we’re seeing more and more repercussions: In 2015, the World Health Organization warned that more than one billion young people are at risk of hearing loss because of personal audio devices, including smartphones and the headphones we plug into them.
None of this is to say headphones are inherently damaging—the real problem is that people are cranking the sound to dangerously high levels for extended periods of time to drown out the surrounding noise. This prolonged listening to loud noise causes hearing loss by damaging stereocilia, which are microscopic hairs that send chemical messages through nerves to the brain when they’re bent by sound entering the ear canal. When the sound is too loud for too long, these stereocilia snap.
But how loud is too loud, and how long is too long? Here are a few loudness facts to consider, according to the Stony Brook School of Medicine (for reference, most portable stereo music systems produce sound in the range of 95 to 108 decibels at a volume setting of four, and in excess of 115 decibels at a volume setting of eight):
- At 95 dB, which is equivalent to the sound of a food processor, damage will occur after four hours of exposure per day.
- At 100 dB, which is equivalent to the sound of riding a motorcycle, damage will occur after two hours of exposure per day.
- At 105 dB, which is equivalent to the sound at a sporting event, damage will occur after one hour of exposure per day.
- At 110 dB, which is equivalent to the sound at a rock concert, damage will occur after 30 minutes of exposure per day.
- At 115 dB, which is equivalent to the sound of an emergency vehicle siren, damage will occur after 15 minutes of exposure per day.
- At 120-plus dB, which is equivalent to the sound of a thunderclap, damage occurs almost immediately.
The short (and alarming) version: The Dangerous Decibels campaign from the Oregon Health and Science University claims you can expect to damage your hearing within 15 minutes of using the in-ear headphones that come with your iPod at maximum volume.
While in-ear headphones (aka, earbuds) have a bad reputation because they emit sound extremely close to the eardrum, they’re not necessarily worse than headphones that sit over the ear, which trap in sound that also reaches the eardrum at nearly full force. It’s true that some earbuds are capable of producing sound nine decibels higher than some over-the-ear headphones (again, because of their proximity to the eardrum), but you can always turn the volume down to compensate.
Therefore, what’s more important than lingering on the fact that in-ear headphones can be of more harm to hearing than over-the-ear headphones is understanding that some headphones (including earbuds) are worse at blocking out surrounding noise than others, which might encourage you to pump up the volume to harmful levels—and that is the real problem.
Put simply, the best headphones for your hearing are noise-cancelling headphones, since they’ll help you resist the temptation to turn the music up.
Knowing this, your safest bet if you’re a hardcore headphone user is to keep your portable stereo music systems at or below a volume setting of four. It may not be rock ‘n’ roll, but neither is not being able to hear a dang thing.