How Earbuds Are Affecting Our Ears

Ellie Robert, Staff Writer

After pausing for a few seconds, junior Caroline Lloyd responded, “It’s something that is important, but rare, so I don’t think it should be a top priority. I just feel [there are] bigger issues to focus on.” When asked about hearing damage caused by earbuds, many teenagers find the issue to be insignificant despite its large impact. One in five teenagers experience hearing loss, yet it is still viewed by the youth as unimportant. Lloyd said that the effects of earbuds are important, but there are more important things to focus on. “I think [hearing loss caused by earbuds is] given a fair amount of attention,” she said. “I guess more research could be put into it if it was a major concern, but I don’t believe it is. I feel there’s a lot of other things [that] people or scientists could pay attention to other than researching the effects of earbuds.”

Holly Van Horn, a clinical audiologist at Duke University Medical Center, said that listening to music can damage a part of your inner ear, causing permanent hearing loss. This process is sped up when users listen to music at loud volumes. Most devices we listen on today go up to 105 decibels, but even sounds above 85 decibels can damage hearing. The process of losing your hearing is gradual, but there are warning signs. Those experiencing hearing loss may hear a ringing or buzzing in the ears, known as tinnitus, or hear muffled noises. Listening to music at loud volumes can even impact your brain. Listening to music through earbuds can have a similar effect on the brain as sclerosis, a disease that attacks the nervous system in the body. Loud music can also weaken levels of myelin, a protective coating that allows electrical signals to travel quickly among nerve cells. The destruction of myelin can worsen hearing, but myelin can regrow over time.

But music isn’t only negative. Lloyd said that listening to music can put you in a better mood. “It can calm you down, make you happy,” she said. “I like listening to music because it helps me stay in a healthy mindset. I think almost any music can help you stay happy or relaxed.” When listening to appealing music, the brain releases dopamine, a chemical that makes you feel good. This chemical can give you a feeling similar to eating your favorite food: a sense of enjoyment.

Music can also impact your stress-level. The University of Nevada says that listening to music with a fast tempo can make you more alert and help you focus. Listening to music at a slower tempo can help you relax or release stress. Researchers at Stanford University say that music can change brain function similarly to the way medication can. School-Based Pediatric Audiologist Hannah McLean said that no specific group is more susceptible to hearing loss from earbuds. “People who really like to listen to things at a loud volume are more likely to have hearing loss caused from earbuds,” she said. “Also, if you’re using earbuds when you’re doing other noisy activities, so if you’re wearing earbuds and mowing the lawn, that would increase your risk of hearing loss. Really, it’s across all ages and anybody who’s listening to music too loud is at risk.”

To enjoy music and avoid hearing loss, Van Horn said you should simply “turn down the volume.” On some devices, you can pre-set the maximum volume to avoid hearing loss. Doctors also recommend the 60 percent/60 minute rule. This rule says that you should listen to music at no more than 60 percent of the maximum volume and for no longer than 60 minutes every day.

Although many teenagers don’t focus on the harmful effects of earbuds, McLean said that these effects can be life-impacting. “Right now, there is no cure for hair cell damage and the damage you’re doing now is going to be with you till you’re 85 or 90 years old,” McLean said. “It impacts your ability to listen and communicate. If you think about all the times from being a teenager to being an old person, you’re going to be working a job, you’re maybe going to be having a family, [there are] lots of important communications in your adult years that you want to save your ears for.”