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      Are headphones damaging our hearing?

      By: Richard Whitaker | 09 February 2018

      Nearly everyone uses headphones, including our children. But what do we know about the long-term effects? And should we be doing more to protect our hearing? Richard Whitaker, an Acoustic Consultant, tells us more.

      We only have five senses, so we should be protecting our hearing as well as we protect our sight. You wouldn’t overexpose your sight by looking at the sun once a day, but you might unknowingly be overexposing your hearing with headphones or earphones.

      The ability to listen privately to audio has changed the world in many ways. You can almost guarantee that if you sit on a train or bus, you’ll be able to hear the distinctive crackle of a pair of headphones or earphones nearby. A recent survey showed that 91% of adults aged between 18 and 44 own a smartphone, all of which came with a pair of earphones.

      Mobile phones, tablets, computers and laptops all use headphones and use is increasing for consuming media, music and films on the go. But the ability to listen to audio whenever we feel like it is relatively new. The original Sony Walkman was released in 1979, so do we really know the long-term effects after 38 years?

      Back in 1997, the World Health Organization (WHO) stated that "Noise-induced hearing loss is the major avoidable cause of permanent hearing impairment worldwide". And worryingly, more recently they stated that 1.1 billion people, notably teenagers and young adults, are at risk of hearing loss through unsafe use of headphones (WHO, 2015).

      So, what can we do to protect our hearing?

      The answer: Turn the volume down.

      It all comes down to the amount of time you listen and the volume at which you listen – in other words, the amount of exposure. There are specific rules and guidance on noise exposure levels that come into force in workplace and health and safety law, but how to practically apply this personally is baffling.

      There have been many attempts to address this issue. Five years ago, nearly all audio devices, including your phone, would flash warnings such as 'listening at loud levels is dangerous', or you’d see the change from green to yellow then red on your iPhone when increasing the volume. None of this actually protected your hearing, but even these have now disappeared or become easier to override and avoid.

      A simple but effective first step would be to lower the volume limit on your own device. Currently, all portable audio devices sold within the EU should have this option, although it is entirely down to the owner to activate this feature and most owners are unaware of it.

      Below is an easy step-by-step process to help you protect your hearing when using headphones or earphones.

      Apple devices

      iPhone

      Navigate to and select:

      • Settings
      • Music
      • Volume limit

      This allows you to set a maximum level. Some devices also have an option to activate the 'EU volume limit', which automatically lowers the level to the EU recommended level. You can also manually select a lower level if required, for example with young children.

      iPad

      Navigate to and select:

      • Settings
      • Music
      • Volume limit

      Very similar to the iPhone, except that the option to select the EU recommended level is missing. It’s down to the user to set their own appropriate level.

      Android devices

      Android devices are not as straight-forward. Rather than letting you limit the volume, they warn you when increasing the volume past safe levels: 'Listening at a high volume for a long time may damage your hearing. Tap OK to allow the volume to be increased above safe levels'.

      The volume slider then changes in colour from green to red to signify the unsafe volume level. The problem is that most people simply tap 'OK', and the warning is not issued ever again. The warning only re-appears after a full shut down or restart takes place.

      However, you can still achieve a volume limit through third-party apps, available for free from the Google Play app store. These are a great solution, especially when wanting to limit the volume level on a child’s device. Some apps actually incorporate a child lock, allowing you to set a level that cannot be altered without a password. Limit Volume and Volume Limiter Lock are just a couple of examples of the apps available.

      Other tips to protect your hearing


      Always check the volume level with the headphones or earphones on to see if it is appropriate – this will vary depending on the type used. Just because the volume is set to the safe limit doesn’t mean it’s not loud. You may want to set the level lower, especially for younger children.

      Noise-induced hearing loss is a real problem that must be addressed before it’s too late. If you have any queries or would like some more information, contact me at richwhit@gmail.com

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