Young People Losing Their Hearing to Awful Earbuds

A study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that one in five American teenagers has some irreversible hearing loss. That’s bad. Even worse, the number of teens with slight hearing loss has increased 30% in the last 15 years, and the number with mild or worse loss is up 77%.

I’m sure your first thought upon hearing that was the same as mine: Bring me the snack foods!

As reported in The Wall Street Journal, Frito-Lay is serving up another helping of the Law of Unintended Consequences. Its Sun Chips are marketed as being green. They’re now cooked with solar energy, and the new bags are made of a biodegradable plant material. The problem is that the bags are really noisy. For example, in a posting at titled “Potato Chip Technology That Destroys Your Hearing,” Air Force pilot J. Scot Heathman claims that the bags are louder than “the cockpit of my jet.” Using a sound-pressure level (SPL) meter, he measured opening the Sun Chips bag at 95 dB, compared with a (nonrecyclable plastic) Tostitos Scoops bag at 77 dB. And a separate Facebook posting advises that it’s “the worst when your [sic] stoned at 2am and trying to not wake up the house.” Clearly, trying to get into these snack-food bags is causing teen hearing loss.

The public backlash against the bags was so significant that the loud bags were pulled from store shelves in the US. 

Or maybe not. On second thought — although the researchers didn’t name a specific cause — if I had to guess, I’d lay the blame on earbuds. A different Australian study found that listening to portable music with earphones increased the risk of hearing loss by 70%. Males are more likely to suffer loss than females. (Oddly, those with light blue eyes are also more susceptible.)

Whatever your eye color, it’s way too easy to crank up the volume to levels that can damage hearing over time. I think some folks increase the volume in a vain attempt to somehow compensate for the poor sound quality of most earbuds. In many situations, listeners increase playback volume to overcome ambient noise levels, for example, on trains and planes. To make matters worse, partial hearing loss only aggravates the problem; to compensate, the listener turns up the volume even more, incurring more loss.

Hearing loss in kids is no laughing matter. It can lead to learning difficulties and problems in social development. Of course, it also greatly impairs the enjoyment of music. That’s a supremely cruel irony. Some kids have lost their hearing response permanently because of crappysounding earbuds. And now, because of that loss, they’ll never be able to hear what good sound actually sounds like. I bet a lot of kids have never even sat down in front of an awesome sound system — and now it could be too late even if they do. Imagine a life that will never get to experience the crystalline beauty of transparent high end, or enjoy the ethereal “air” that surrounds a good recording. For that matter, they may never be able to fully appreciate what good live music sounds like. And that’s a real shame.

So, what can be done? Very generally, you can safely listen to levels up to 60% all day, and levels up to 80% for about 90 minutes per day. Maximum volume might be safe for only 5 minutes. Some portable players and earbuds can pump a level of 100 decibels into the ears; sound at that level should be limited to 1.5 minutes per day. More than that can slowly (and stealthily) lead to hearing loss. And if you’re exposed to other loud sounds, these safe music-listening times must be decreased — overall exposure is what counts.

Hearing loss takes time, and it’s been about 5 years since MP3 players became even more prevalent than portable tape and disc players; perhaps we’re seeing the first fallout from that technological revolution. In my mind, the evidence is pretty clear. Kids (and the rest of us): Lower the volume. Music that’s a little softer still sounds great, and will continue to sound great years from now. Turn it down. And it wouldn’t be a bad idea to lay off the chips, too.