More than a billion young people may be damaging their hearing with loud music

Teens prefer headphones to speakers, which can damage their hearing  (Sony)
Teens prefer headphones to speakers, which can damage their hearing (Sony)

More than one billion people aged 12 to 34 could be damaging their hearing through the use of headphones, and by going to live music venues and clubs, according to a study published by the British Medical Journal.

The new meta-study combines the data from 30 separate studies undertaken between 2000 and 2021 which, in total, involved more than 19,000 people globally. These looked into the possible links between hearing loss and both the use of “personal listening devices” — mostly mobile phones — as well as visiting loud venues.

While the study highlights the difficulties in making these types of connections, as hearing loss typically occurs over a long period of time, it estimates that almost one-quarter of younger people are routinely exposed to “unsafe listening” from their use of headphones or going to noisy venues such as gigs or clubs.

The study does not speculate on causes, other than to mention the routine failure of some venues to regulate sound levels. Other factors may include the decreasing price of powerful amplification, the prevalence of 24/7 streaming services, and the cultural factors that have led so many teens to routinely favour headphones rather than speakers.

“This research should be a wake up call for us to start taking our hearing health seriously from a much younger age”, said Franki Oliver, Audiology Adviser at RNID. “We know that exposure to loud noise increases the risk of developing permanent hearing loss or tinnitus, but the really important thing to remember is that this is preventable.”

What level of music volume is unsafe?

The RNID (Royal National Institute for Deaf People) explains that the hair cells in our ears that sense sound can start to become damaged by noise at 85dB and above on a regular basis. For context, this is only slightly louder than heavy traffic or a noisy restaurant – and the music played at clubs or concerts is often around 110dB, albeit sound levels are not directly comparable on a linear scale.

How long does it take for hearing damage to occur?

Even a single instance of unsafe listening can cause physiological damage if the hair cells inside the ear become overstimulated. Once this happens, these hairs stop responding to sound. This can result in temporary hearing loss that you may recognise as dulled hearing – and it can last from a few minutes to a few days. If you continue listening to music that’s too loud, over time, the hair cells may lose their ability to recover and die. It’s a bit like trampling over the same patch of grass every day

What other sources of noise cause problems?

There are many ways this can occur but most Londoners will be shocked at the role the Tube network plays. Earlier this year, MyLondon recorded peak sound levels of 92dB on the Jubilee and Central lines, and found the average noise level across the lines was “between 78 and 81 decibels”.

Do mobile phones have a volume limit for music playback?

In 2013, the EU mandated an 85dB volume limit for all music players, while Apple added maximum customisable volume limits back in March 2006 for the iPod. This limit extends to today’s phones, which is why iPhones sold in the UK have a built-in volume limit, and Android owners are prompted if they raise the volume above a certain level. The above limitations are not a precise science, as headphones have different sensitivity levels — and this determines how loud a pair will play music at any given power level.

How can you protect your hearing?

The RNID offers the following practical tips and even offers a free online check if you are concerned about your hearing.

When listening through headphones

Take regular breaks of at least five minutes every hour to give your ears a rest. This is especially true if you listen during work hours. As a bonus, you might make more friends.

Learn how to manually limit the volume on your iPhone or Android phone, just in case you are tempted to crank up a power-tune en route to the gym.

Invest in active noise-cancelling headphones or ones that physically block hubbub. These reduce Tube-line screech and the impulse to crank volume to compete with noise.

When out at gigs or nightclubs

Carry earplugs on a night out. The reusable kind designed for clubbers and musicians – such as the ACS Pacato, Etymotic ER20XS, or Alpine PartyPlug – won’t muffle live music but can reduce the level by up to 20dB. Much safer.

In a music venue, stay away from the speakers – the closer you are, the greater the risk of hearing damage – and be wary of friends shouting too loudly in your ear.

Take regular breaks from the loudest areas to give your precious ears a rest. The chill-out zones in clubs are perfect for this.