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Your earbuds and you: What all that listening is doing to us

Daniel Hertzberg

Thousands of years ago, our ears were attuned to the subtle sounds of our environment: the rustle of leaves from nearby prey, the growl of an approaching predator, the rumble of a distant storm. Listening closely to these sounds helped us survive.

Today, our auditory world has changed drastically — and gotten much louder. Our lives are filled with a barrage of sound from traffic, sirens, construction, noisy restaurants and concerts.

But one of the most insidious sources of noise exposure is our technology, namely earbuds and headphones. In 2023, over half a billion pairs of headphones were sold—according to Grand View Research—nearly double the number sold a decade ago. Many of us wear earbuds for hours at a time, sometimes all day long. And all that listening is taking a toll on our hearing.

According to the World Health Organization, over 1 billion young adults, ages 12 to 35, are at risk of permanent, avoidable hearing loss due to "unsafe listening practices." By 2050, the WHO predicts that 1 in 10 of us will experience "disabling hearing loss."

"This can sound alarming," exposure scientist Rick Neitzel said in an interview with Manoush Zomorodi on NPR's Body Electric. Neitzel said he has often been asked, "I don't want to harm my hearing, is there anything I can do? The good news is, there is."

An unprecedented study that could pave the way for safer listening practices

In 2019, Neitzel and his team at the University of Michigan launched the Apple Hearing Study, a first-of-its-kind study with Apple geared toward understanding people's daily sound exposure and listening habits. Over 180,000 people have volunteered to share their phone data and Apple watch data with Neitzel and his team, who are examining how long and loud people are listening, and the noise levels in their environment.

So far, the study has revealed that 1 in 3 participants are exposed to excessive noise levels. Neitzel said one of their key findings is that people tend to listen at a louder volume, for a longer duration of time. But there are measures we can all take to minimize the damage to our hearing.

"The EPA and the WHO both agree that if we can keep everybody's exposure on average below 70 decibels, which is a little bit louder than you'd be talking to someone if you were sitting 3 feet apart," explained Neitzel, "we essentially eliminate any risk of hearing loss from noise."

Guide: How can we listen more safely?

1. Set a max volume limit on your phone

On an iPhone, go to Settings → Sounds & Haptics → Headphone Safety, select "Reduce Loud Audio" and set the limit to 75 dBA, as that's the lowest setting offered.

On a Samsung Galaxy smartphone, go to Settings → Sounds and Vibration → Volume, then tap the three dots in the upper right hand corner and select "Media Volume Limit." Toggle the switch to "On" and use the slider to set your maximum volume level.

2. Avoid listening for too long

If you tend to listen to your earbuds at higher volume, consider taking more breaks to give your ears a rest.

"Your ear can totally handle high levels of sound if they are relatively short. What we're trying to avoid are high levels of sound you're having for prolonged periods of time, hours at a time," said Neitzel.

3. If your earbuds have a noise canceling feature, use it! Especially in loud places

Noise-canceling mode provides your ears a bit of extra protection from a loud environment. "For instance, if you're riding on a really noisy subway, cutting down on that background sound lets you cut down on your listening volume," explained Neitzel. "So, those are both wins for your ears."

Neitzel said opting for noise transparency mode is a good option as well, for times when you want to hear your surroundings for safety reasons, but also want to provide your ears with some protection.

4. Notice how noise exposure makes you feel physically and mentally

Loud environments can make us feel stressed, anxious and on-edge. In fact, chronic noise exposure has been linked to cardiovascular disease, heart attacks, strokes and high blood pressure.

So, when you find yourself in a noisy place, take a moment to do a body scan and notice how you're feeling. If the noise starts to feel too loud or overwhelming, consider taking a break in a quiet location to give your ears, mind and body some time to recharge.

"Frankly, I would love for people to just be aware of their noise exposure," said Neitzel. "The fact is, the majority of Americans are exposed to noise for much of their lives. I think raising awareness of this issue can go a long way towards making people healthier."

This episode of Body Electric was produced by Katie Monteleone and edited by Sanaz Meshkinpour. Original music by David Herman. Our audio engineer was James Willetts.

Listen to the whole series here. Sign up for the Body Electric Challenge and our newsletter here.

Talk to us on Instagram @ManoushZ, or record a voice memo and email it to us at BodyElectric@npr.org.

Copyright 2024 NPR

Manoush Zomorodi
Manoush Zomorodi is the host of TED Radio Hour. She is a journalist, podcaster and media entrepreneur, and her work reflects her passion for investigating how technology and business are transforming humanity.
Katie Monteleone
Katie Monteleone is a producer for TED Radio Hour. She started out as an intern for the show in January 2019. After her internship, Monteleone began producing for Life Kit before returning to the TED Radio Hour team in October 2019 as a full-time producer.
Sanaz Meshkinpour
[Copyright 2024 NPR]