More Than 1 Billion Young People May Be at Risk for Hearing Loss From 'Unsafe Listening'

Here's how to protect your ears—and preserve your hearing.

young woman listening to music with headphones

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  • As many as 1.35 billion teenagers and young adults may be at risk for hearing loss.
  • "Unsafe listening" habits—including listening to music too loudly or attending loud concerts or sporting games—could cause irreversible damage to hearing.
  • Experts recommend adopting safer listening habits, like keeping volume at a minimum or using noise-cancelling headphones.

Approximately 1 billion young people worldwide could be at risk for hearing loss, but simple changes in habits could reduce risk. 

A new study published in BMJ Global Health found that between 670 million and 1.35 billion people ages 12–34 years old practiced unsafe listening habits—things like listening to music, podcasts, or videos with the volume too loud; and attending loud events—that could cause irreversible damage to their hearing. 

“One reason why unsafe listening may pose a particularly large threat now is because personal listening devices are easily available, widely used by many young people, and often used for long periods of time,” lead study author Lauren Dillard, PhD, AuD, a postdoctoral fellow at the Medical University of South Carolina, told Health.

Duration, Not Just Volume, An Important Factor 

For the study, Dillard and her colleagues reviewed 33 studies between 2000 and 2021 that measured the listening habits of young people. They found that people aged 12–35 were routinely listening to content on personal devices like cell phones and MP3 players at around 105 decibels. The average noise level at venues was between 104 and 112 decibels. This far exceeded the recommended limit of no more than 85 decibels throughout a 40-hour week

According to Tracy Winn, AuD, a clinical audiologist at the Center for Audiology, Speech, Language, and Learning at Northwestern University, who was not involved in the new research, there are two factors with any noise exposure that can determine if it causes damage: how loud it is and how much time you’re exposed to it. 

“There is evidence out there that shows that even more moderate noise, if you are exposed to it all the time, you can still have damage,” she told Health

Sudden bursts, like a gunshot or firecracker explosion, are loud enough to do damage instantly, she said. “But with earbuds and stuff like that, the more you are listening, the more damage you are doing to your hearing.”

For that reason, it’s important to give your ears a break throughout the day, Winn said. Volume also matters. 

“The general rule of thumb is if you are sitting next to the person with the earbuds in, you should not be able to hear it,” Winn said, noting to also be mindful about turning up the volume as the background noise around you gets louder. 

Sporting Events Getting Louder

According to Winn, people have gone to loud concerts and sporting events for generations, but modern day venues have a particular affinity for noise. 

“They are competing to be the loudest stadiums," she said. "They will constantly put on the scoreboards for people to be louder."

Although it may not seem like that big of a deal, since the exposure is temporary, Winn said it’s important to wear ear plugs or noise-canceling earmuffs or headphones in these situations. 

“If you have ringing in your ears but then the next day you’re fine, that doesn’t mean damage wasn’t done," said Winn. "Protection is about long-term safety."

How to Protect Your Hearing

According to Winn, when it comes to listening to music or anything else through headphones, “You don’t have to give it up, you just have to be smart about it. If you are listening to earbuds, try to limit that to a few hours a day and keep the volume turned down.”

Dillard echoed that the point of the new research is not to convince people to not do the things they like, but rather to adopt safer listening habits to safeguard their hearing in the future. She recommends:

  • Keeping volume at about 60% of a device’s maximum. 
  • Using noise-canceling headphones to reduce background noise so there’s less of a need to turn the volume up on your device to compensate for it. 
  • Protecting your ears by wearing earplugs in noisy venues and not sitting close to speakers. 
  • Limiting the amount of time you spend doing noisy activities or using headphones. 
  • Practicing all-around safe listening practices when you’re listening to anything on your phone, tablet, etc. (An easy way to do this is through built-in safe listening features on your phone or downloading an app to monitor sound exposure.)

It’s also important to pay attention to warning signs of hearing loss, which include tinnitus (ringing in the ears) and difficulty hearing high-pitched sounds or following conversations.

If you’re concerned, talk to your doctor and try checking your hearing before your appointment using validated apps such as the World Health Organization's hearWHO app, said Dillard.

“It's really a matter of awareness. Of course when you are young you don’t think it will hurt you, and the thing with noise-induced hearing loss is it takes a while to set in,” said Winn. “But once the damage is done, you can’t get it back and if people understood how annoying it is to lose that, they may be more apt to do something about it.” 

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  1. Dillard LK, Arunda MO, Lopez-Perez L, Martinez RX, Jiménez L, Chadha S. Prevalence and global estimates of unsafe listening practices in adolescents and young adults: a systematic review and meta-analysisBMJ Glob Health. 2022;7(11):e010501. doi:10.1136/bmjgh-2022-010501.

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