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Over my 30 years at the ABC, I wore headphones for hours on end, day after day. The legacy is that now I hate wearing them. Even worse are ear buds, AirPods or similar gadgets.
My job made me hyper-aware of the rise in occupational deafness. According to Hearing Australia, it is likely that anyone exposed to lengthy periods of high-volume noise at close quarters will lose some, if not most, of their hearing.
Listening to loud music all day on ear buds can damage your hearing.
Much of the world is already experiencing an epidemic of deafness, warns the World Health Organisation. Because of our ageing population, a higher proportion of the population will soon be living with some level of hearing loss, affecting daily life and, in particular, mental health.
Scandalously, much of the hearing loss is preventable. Unlike many other countries, we are not doing what needs to be done.
A parliamentary inquiry in 2017 secured a commitment by the then Turnbull government for a public health information campaign along with other measures to prevent the increase in deafness.
Despite nearly six years passing, that campaign has still not eventuated. We pioneered world-leading health campaigns on the perils of smoking, skin cancer, drink-driving, drowning and other public and private hazards, which save lives and billions of dollars from the health budget. Whether it is the stigma surrounding hearing loss, misplaced anxiety about the so-called “nanny state” or some other hurdle, this important public message has yet to materialise.
Occupational health and safety guidelines have covered noisy workplaces for decades, and appropriate protection has long been mandatory. Nobody would argue against it, but many people subject themselves to equivalent hazardous noise levels without realising or giving it a second thought. Of particular concern are the Gen Zers, the digital natives for whom it is normal to have AirPods blasting into their ears all day. Gamers are especially vulnerable.
To be clear, the new technology in itself is not the problem – there has always been loud music, machinery or various other auditory threats in our daily lives. What has changed is that it is now easier and cheaper to buy devices that can pound our ears with high-volume sounds at close quarters for far longer than could have happened in the past.
According to Professor Bob Cowan from the University of Melbourne, an expert in the auditory challenge stemming from loud music, it is simplistic and misguided to blame the new gadgets for the spike in hearing loss. “The problem is how loud we listen, for how long and how often,” he told me over a cuppa in a noisy cafe, as we struggled to hear each other over the background gangsta rap.
Listening to music through headphones at high volume all day is the equivalent of standing right in front of the speaker stack at a music festival all day, he explains. What is vital, he warns, is for users to understand the risks and to manage the technology. Telling kids not to listen to loud music is as pointless today as it has always been. The damage to hearing from a live concert is likely to be much greater than from using headphones.
The paradox is that the gadgets can be as much protective as destructive to hearing. Close-fitting headphones, noise-cancelling technology and digital alerts to both time elapsed and overall volume can save your ears.
Manufacturers issue warnings that are in the packaging of headphones and in-ear devices. Nobody reads the fine print, but it gets the companies off the hook if someone tries to sue them.
Mobile phone companies have volume-limiting technology in the operating systems of their phones. In some markets – including the United States – limits are a default; a manual over-ride or a simple hack is needed to disable them.
Turning warnings off is the auditory equivalent of recklessly disconnecting the seatbelt alarm in your car to drive unbelted despite the obvious risks of doing so.
Australian phones may have pre-sets depending on the make and age of your phone and the operating system it runs. Some Bluetooth devices will override, making generalisations – and regulation – even more complex.
Apple will not reveal which countries require the volume limiter to be set by default. Are some nation’s people’s hearing less worthy of being protected than others? If the tech exists to protect hearing, then why not make that protection universal?
It is another example – like gambling – where we have individualised the problem while letting the instigators off the hook. We are told it is our responsibility to protect ourselves from harm, while the industry that creates the harm walks away.
Much as it is disappointing to admit, when your exasperated parents or neighbours yelled, “turn that racket down or you’ll go deaf”, they were right.
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