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“Turn that music down!”
This phrase, uttered by parents, teachers, and fellow students alike is haunting our generation. With the growing popularity of earbuds in the last decade and a half, and teens cranking the volume to full-blast, hearing loss in high schoolers is a growing issue.
While some seem to notice ringing in their ears after an hour-long session of jamming out, many of those who experience this common symptom seem to just not care, according to audiologist Sophia Plough. This could contribute to permanent hearing loss in their future.
Headphones have been around since the 1880s, but back then they weighed around 10 pounds and were used solely by telephone operators. People started using them for musical purposes in the mid-1890s, but what made headphones become really popular was the debut of smaller, portable ones, released in 1979 by Sony, according to the Smithsonian .
From then on, for music marketers and kids alike, it was everything they ever could have wished for. They could listen to music wherever they wanted to, whenever they wanted to, with the headphones getting smaller and louder.
People didn’t seem to be too worried about the issue, however, until earbuds came out in the 1980s. They fit inside the ear, but don’t do as good of a job keeping out background noise as actual headphones do, causing the user to turn up the volume in order to minimize the noise they don’t want to hear. Resting inside the ear at such close proximity, the music is already six to seven decibels above what it normally is with headphones, according to Plough.
Combine that close range of noise with the constant loud music, and those little white snakes are a recipe for disaster. Sound can range anywhere from 10 decibels, which is as loud as someone breathing, to 150 decibels, which is the same amount a jet makes blasting off. 150 decibels can easily rupture an eardrum. Anywhere above 85 decibels, which is equivalent to the noise of a lawnmower, is in the danger zone. You can still hear people’s conversations over the music at that level, which makes junior Ian Armstrong turn up his volume.
“Sometimes when I’m working on my homework I need to focus and [other people] won’t shut up,” Armstrong said. “So I turn my music up.”
What really spurred this generation’s widespread hearing loss, though, was the iPod, released in 2001. Every single device was sold with a set of earbuds.
According to Apple, 600,000 iPods were sold in 2002. In 2010, that number was up to 275 million. With each one sold, there was that risk of the user turning up the volume up too high on the earbuds and potentially damaging their hearing.
“The number of kids who’ve come into my office, complaining about ringing in their ears or their parents dragging them in, complaining that their kids can’t understand a word that they say is alarming,” Plough said.
She believes that the scariest part, however, is that most of the kids are in denial. They don’t understand the severity of the situation—how this could damage and potentially destroy their hearing for years to come.
After testing their ears, Plough gives the kids a number. It’s how old their ears are, and can be the hardest part of her job sometimes.
“It’s really not fun to tell a 14-year-old that they have the hearing of someone who’s 79,” she said.
It really does start that early–nearly 90 percent of kids begin regularly listening to music in seventh grade, Plough said. By just listening to an hour of music a day at above 85 decibels, they’re putting their eardrums through the equivalent of 30 minutes of a rock concert according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
Junior Deegan Poores enjoys cranking his music so it’s just below full-blast, on top of playing three types of guitar and being on drumline. He started having ringing in his ears in seventh grade.
“I’m pretty sure like everybody can attest that I have to have them repeat everything, multiple times,” Poores said.
Plough said that the best ways to avoid and prevent hearing loss is to use headphones instead of earbuds whenever possible, and to make sure the volume hovers around 75 decibels at the loudest, which is about the equivalent to the amount of sound a dishwasher makes.
“Yes, at 75 decibels you’ll be able to hear people around you talking,” she said. “But at least when you’re 75-years-old, you’ll still be able to hear people around you talking, unlike the other 90 percent of the generation.”