A podcast during your morning commute, some classical music to drown out your noisy colleagues, and a running playlist to get you through an evening jog.
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 British.
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.
“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
‘After gigs, I would just hear this wall of noise’
Tinnitus is a constant ringing in the ears, and is usually one of the first signs of hearing damage.
“After gigs, I would just hear this wall of noise, like a constant fuzz. As I would get into bed and everything else would be quiet, I would notice the ringing sound,” she said.
Terrified by the prospect of losing her hearing, Elizabeth dramatically changed how she worked. She invested in custom moulded ear plugs to wear under her headphones, and she keeps away from speaker stacks while performing on stage.
“My voice is my instrument, but my ears are equally as important,” she said.
“If my hearing got worse, I’d have to pull back on touring, which is the main income as an artist these days. So it’s just too much of a sacrifice.”
Do you need expensive headphones to protect your hearing?
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.
“We have to take some personal responsibility. But we also need to put the onus back on headphone manufacturers to come up with the right goods,” Professor McAlpine said.
“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.
“Young people should start taking their hearing health seriously,” Professor McAlpine said.
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 let you restrict the volume setting.
Professor McAlpine says everyone should approach noise the same way they would junk food, alcohol or sun exposure.
“You need to go on a noise diet. If you’re going to a noisy gig, don’t spend all day on public transport listening to your earbuds,” he said.
“We should be protecting ourselves from intense sound. If we don’t, in the future we’ll have big problems.”