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Kryptonite in our ears

Over recent years I’ve increasingly come to think of listening as the superpower of communications. Despite it being oddly neglected as a developable skill, it’s the basis for our most essential human need: to understand and be understood. Unlike its cousin, vision, it stays alert 24/7, even in the dark and during sleep. So it should be a major worry that it’s under threat.

The threat stems from devices leading to us listen to louder audio, longer. Everyday conversation is around 60 decibels. Most of us play our phones at 75-105dB. That's a problem when anything above 100dB causes permanent damage after just 15 minutes. And most people listen much longer than that - over 2 hours a day on average, a figure rising with the popularity of streaming services like Spotify. Earbuds have made it worse. Their position inside the ear produces audio around 9dB higher than external earphones.

The result is growing hearing loss among young people. According to the WHO, 1 billion young adults are at risk of permanent, avoidable hearing loss due to unsafe listening. Around 20% of Americans in their 20s experience hearing loss. The condition among teenagers jumped more than 30% between the Walkman and the iPod generations. The shift to online classes and homeworking is likely to make things still worse.

Physical damage is only part of the problem. The same issues are also damaging relationships. I shudder recalling the occasions when, in wearing earpods, I’ve inadvertently cut myself off from those around me, forcing them to repeat themselves or even give up trying to win my attention. I'm not alone. According to author Kate Murphy, the average amount of time people spend listening to one another during waking hours has gone down by almost half in recent years.

As convenient as earbuds are, these trends suggest they are kryptonite to our precious power of listening. So is there anything we can do about it? Fortunately, yes. Here are three things I’m currently trying:

  • Go into your phone settings and activate the headphone safety tools to prevent you exceeding recommended volume levels.

  • Follow the 60-60 rule: listen at 60% of the maximum volume for no longer than 60 minutes a day.

  • Seek silence. Meditation, forest bathing or boldly travelling to your next destination without popping in the buds can all help to reduce noise levels, reacquaint ourselves with our surroundings and give us space to think and daydream (remember that?).

Reaching for my earpods has become a bad habit I hope to unlearn over the coming weeks. I don't know what I might learn in its place. But I've got my ears wide open to find out.

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