How the earbud generation is facing an epic problem with hearing loss

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Millions of consumers wear earbuds every day to hear music, podcasts and other content on their mobile phones. (The Associated Press)

Move aside, cigarettes, there’s a new health hazard in town: sound.

Music lovers are always told that what they hear is beneficial to the brain: classical music in the womb, soothing songs before bed, upbeat tunes during workouts.

But it seems our auditory obsession is silently — or, rather, loudly — doing us harm.

“Our society’s conditioned to think that loud is better — more fun,” said Leon Mills, executive director of the Canadian Hard of Hearing Association in Newfoundland and Labrador.

Mills said hearing problems are amplified by earbuds, which have become ubiquitous as millions of consumers listen to audio on their mobile devices. 

Leon Mills said many young people don’t appreciate the risks of hearing loss. (Sherry Vivian/CBC)

Past generations typically listened to music through speakers or over-the-ear headphones. Today’s adolescents are pumping music directly into their ears with buds that sit closer to the ear drum, doing more harm.

“Young people think they’re invincible,” Mills told CBC Radio’s On The Go

It’s like a balloon. Once it ruptures, it’s gone.– Leon Mills

He noted that experts are already bracing for a looming hearing loss epidemic because of a shift in how we use technology. 

About 20 per cent of the world population already experiences some form of hearing loss, and that number is on the rise.

Unprecedented reports among young adults

Naturally, the percentage is higher in older age groups. However, Mills said hearing loss can no longer be looked at as mainly a seniors’ issue, as reports are already showing an unprecedented number of adults in their 20s and early 30s with hearing troubles.

Tinnitus, a persistent ringing or buzzing in the ear, is an indicator of ear damage and tends to be diagnosed in patients over 50.

Headphones can also increase the risk of hearing loss. (Shutterstock)

But more than half of adolescents surveyed in a 2016 McMaster University study had previously experienced tinnitus. Of those students, half reported feeling symptoms after listening to loud music.

Mills also attributed the growing problem to younger people constantly “bombarding” their ears.

In addition to earbuds, people encounter loud noises more frequently through a variety of factors — bars, open-concept restaurants, snowmobiles and water craft. 

Unlike other health issues such as diet and fitness, the effects of hearing loss cannot be reversed. Each time ears are exposed to dangerously loud noise, the cilia — small hair-like cells along the inner ear — are irreparably damaged, Mills warned.

“It’s like a balloon. Once it ruptures, it’s gone,” he explained. “You can’t fix it.”

Awareness part of the solution

The fact that the harm from loud sounds can’t be perceived immediately is a huge barrier. People hardly realize the cumulative damage that is being done until it’s too late.

CBC Newfoundland and Labrador spoke with local consumers to get their thoughts on the prevalence of hearing loss in youth.

Pedestrians may avoid street noise with earbuds, but the volume of their private sound may cause more damage. (Jacy Schindel/CBC)

At Memorial University, some were reluctant to switch out their earbuds for safer alternatives — even despite knowing the dangers.

“Earbuds just tend to be a lot easier and a lot more convenient. They’re small — you can shove them in your pocket. There’s no trouble to it,” said Derek O’Driscoll.

Sherrie Winsor was unaware of the scale of the issue. To combat the evils of earbuds, she suggested manufacturing companies put warnings on their packaging, similar to the labels on cigarette packs.

Gillian St. Croix is not keen on the headphone aesthetic. “The over-the-ear ones … I’m not going to go for a walk or go around school with big ol’ ones on my head,” she said. 

Mills said it easier for parents and teachers to instill good habits in younger children, which is why the association is sponsoring a poster contest for Grade 4 students across the province in May for Better Hearing and Speech Month.

Even still, Mills — who has worn hearing aids for more than three decades — urged everyone to protect their hearing. 

“They help me cope, but they don’t fix everything,” he said. “Bottom line: don’t take your hearing for granted.”

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