MAGAZINE: Falling on Deaf Ears

Jack H. Evans

From The Bark magazine, Winter 2011 A world with­out sound. Without music, without speech, without the sound of chil­dren playing. Sounds pretty horrible, right? Skullcandy, Beats, Sony, or Apple – what­ever your preferred brand, if you are or have been a high school stu­dent in the 21st century, odds are you’ve prob­ably used earbuds or headphones in con­junction with an iPod or other portable music playing device at some point. And if not – is it comfortable under your rock? But unfortunately for listeners, the enjoy­ment of music listening is being threatened by something most teen­agers either haven’t considered or won’t consider: the menace of hearing damage. In recent years, as the digital age has contin­ued its steady climb, the thought of hearing loss as a side effect of ear­bud usage has become a common idea. But this isn’t just an empty pa­rental threat; it’s science – almost. “[Scientists] haven’t been able to prove that the earbuds cause hearing loss, but the general trend is that hearing loss is on the rise among teenagers and the use of earbuds is rising, so we’re kind of assuming that there’s a correlation,” says Dr. Lee Cottrell, an audiologist at Bridgewater Speech & Hearing. Blades of grass As Dr. Cottrell ex­plains, sound is pro­cessed by way of a system of small hair cells in the inner ear. When a soft sound hits those hair cells, they move slightly, and the brain processes this as a soft noise. However, when a sound that is loud or continuous strikes the inner ear, it causes the hair cells to move repeatedly, and this eventually causes damage over time. “It’s a little bit like stepping on a blade of grass,” Dr. Cottrell says. “If you step on it once, it’ll come back up, but if you step on it over and over, it’ll die.” To say that the use of earbuds is rising is an understatement. At any place across America, you’d be hard pressed to find a pre-teen, teen­ager, or young adult who doesn’t use head­phones or earbuds at least occasionally. “Most of the time when I’m not at school, I’m listening to music,” sophomore Branden Bassett says. Volume adjustment From pop and electronica to rock and metal, pretty much any type of music can be found on the iPods of a high school. But it is volume, not genre, that is pertinent to the hear­ing damage in question here, and if there’s one thing that young peo­ple know how to do, it’s how to listen to loud music. “I would say that I keep [the volume] be­tween the halfway mark and the three-quarters mark on the iPod,” junior Taylor Weiskittle says. While that volume level may be under­standable, some stu­dents take it to the next extreme. “[I listen to music] a lot louder than I should, up to the point where you can’t hear anything, unless someone is yell­ing in your ear,” Bassett says. Other than eventual hearing loss, negative effects of loud, ex­tended noise include earaches and ringing in the ears, more scientifi­cally known as tinnitus. Tinnitus can lead to anxiety, insomnia, and depression, and has even led to suicide in some cases. “Any time you get done with music or you leave somewhere where there’s been a lot of loud sound, if you ever have ringing in your ears, that’s a sign that it was too loud,” Dr. Cottrell says. Even high school students have begun to notice hearing damage in themselves. “Sometimes after I listen to music really loud, I’ll have hearing problems for a couple of minutes,” freshman Brandon Reymond says. Noticing the effects In the social Petri dish that is high school, it’s just as easy for students to take notice of hear­ing problems among their friends. “I do have a friend who listens to music with the earbuds that go into your ear, and when he gets done listening to music, it takes him a couple of minutes, anywhere from five to ten minutes to get his full hearing back to the point where if someone says some­thing he acknowledges and hears it,” Bassett says. So, loud music in general can potentially cause hearing dam­age, but is any type of headphones or earbuds safer, or are all types equally dangerous? Contrary to popular belief, the less of the noise around you that is heard, the better your headphones are work­ing. Any kinds of head­phones with the abil­ity to block out back­ground sound are the best, Dr. Cottrell says. In a quiet room at a comfortable volume, earbuds are perfectly safe. However, when one is surrounded by loud noise, the volume must be turned up in an effort to block out the sound. “As of yet, there is no indication that earbuds are louder than head­phones, but it’s the fact that kids are wearing these earbuds that don’t cancel any back­ground noise, and so all that background plus all that music is coming in,” Dr. Cottrell says. Can you hear me now? Some students have their own opinions on the safety of various types of headphones. “I think that the ear­buds that go into your ear canal are definitely a lot worse than the regular earphones because it’s pushing the music way farther into your [ear] canal than it should be,” Bassett says. While the threat of hearing loss looms heavily over many a teenager, let’s face it: this is the digital age. Technology will con­tinue to improve and to advance, and use of technology like earbuds will continue to rise. For many young people, music is a way of life, and many will continue to listen to it through headphones regardless of the risks. “I definitely believe [that using earbuds can lead to hearing dam­age], but I think that the usefulness outweighs the cost,” Weiskittle says. Maybe science will give us a cure for hear­ing loss within the next few decades and this will all be irrelevant. Or maybe it won’t, and in 30 years the most common word in the English language will be What?!? For now, just be glad you don’t have to hear this article. Jack H. Evans is the entertainment editor for The Bark. Follow The Bark on Twitter @BeardenBARK and like The Bark (Bearden High School) on Facebook.