They're everywhere these days -- people attached to their iPods (or similar devices), carrying hours -- even days -- of music in their pockets. Portable MP3 players have changed the way we listen to music. Many people spend hours each day with headphones in their ears -- often with the volume turned so loud, others around them can hear the music as well. Which begs the question: how loud is too loud? Is our desire for a personal soundtrack damaging our hearing?
Symptom of a noisy culture
According to audiologist Victoria McLeod, M.Cl.Sc., Aud (C) of Hastings Hearing Centre in Winnipeg, "current research suggests that a person should not listen to music through headphones for longer than 60 minutes per day at 60 per cent of the maximum volume control." This amount takes into account the fact that the average North American is exposed to high sound levels from other sources, such as traffic, hair dryers, lawn mowers and power tools. Overuse of headphones, like excess exposure to any loud noise, will eventually cause hearing loss and tinnitus (ringing in the ears) -- and children aren't immune. In fact, according to the Canadian Association of Speech-Language Pathologists and Audiologists (CASLPA), studies in the U.S. show that 12.5 per cent of children have noise-induced hearing problems in one or both ears. And hearing loss is permanent.
"The use of headphones and personal stereos has always been a concern to audiologists and people interested in hearing conservation," says McLeod. "This was a 'hot topic' 20 years ago, when the walkman came out, and it's hot again."
One reason that hearing damage has become such an issue lately is because digital music players offer higher-quality sound at higher volume levels, whereas in older types of players, loss of fidelity at high volume meant that volume levels were typically kept lower. Many people also turn up the volume to drown out outside sounds such as other people talking or the noise of the subway or bus.
In addition, while using a portable CD player means carrying CDs around with you -- and therefore limits the selection of music you will have at any one time -- MP3 players can hold days' worth of music. You no longer need to change discs or search for songs, and it's unlikely that you'll get tired of the music you have with you and simply turn the player off. "These two factors," says McLeod, "combine into a concern that people may be wearing their MP3 players longer and louder than people have in the past, opening them up to the possibility of permanent hearing damage."
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The only way to prevent hearing loss is to reduce your exposure to loud noise -- that means using earplugs when exposed to high noise levels (such as during a concert or while using power tools) or avoiding loud sounds if possible and limiting the use of personal music players. That's an easy enough solution for regulating one's own behaviour, but how do you protect your kids, other than explaining to them the dangers of too much loud noise?
One solution is to use better headphones. The earbud-style headphones that come with music players are typically low quality and do not block outside noise, causing listeners to turn up the volume in order to hear their music better. Headphones that go over the ears will block more noise and therefore volume levels can be kept lower while maintaining sound quality. Many people also recommend noise-cancellation headphones, says McLeod, which reduce outside ambient noise. However, even with better headphones, she says, it's still important not to go over the recommended 60 minutes per day at 60 per cent of the maximum volume.
Another option recently offered by Apple is software that allows you to set a personal maximum volume limit on your iPod. The software also gives parents the ability to set a limit on their children's music players and lock them with a code -- offering peace of mind to parents that even if their kids do listen too often, at least they're not listening too loud.
So if you or your kids are listening to an iPod, turn it down. Your ears -- not to mention the person sitting next to you on the bus -- will thank you for it.
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