Turn Down the Volume

More than 75 percent of young people ages 14 to 24 own an iPod or MP3 player, Paragon Media Strategies reports. How many are playing their music much too loud?

ROCK ’N’ ROLL and volume, lots and lots of volume, just naturally go together. Pipe that volume from iPods and other MP3 players directly into a listener’s ears and a personal playlist enjoyed today may damage hearing later in life.

A recent study by students of Pamela Smith and Tom Zalewski, associate professors of audiology and speech pathology, revealed that nearly 92 percent of 459 Bloomsburg University students surveyed use a personal listening device, most often with earbuds, which are placed directly into the ear canal.

Earbuds’ proximity to the eardrum, coupled with a practically never-ending supply of music at poten- tially unsafe volume levels, can lead to hearing loss, although it may not be noticed for several years, Smith says. Symptoms of damage include ringing in the ears, muffled voices or a sense of fullness in the ears.

“Headphones amplify sound, and new technology is producing sound-isolating headphones or earbuds,” Zalewski says. “These tiny devices can produce the sound levels of a rock concert. When you put the two together … and if you listen to it loud enough for long enough … you are putting yourself at risk for hearing damage.”

Two simple steps can reduce the chance of damage — which can be permanent. First, turn down the volume, Zalewski says. “If you can hold a conversation in a normal level of voice with someone three or four feet away, then it’s usually safe. If you have to speak up or ask the individual you are speaking with to repeat himself or herself, then it’s too loud.”

And don’t listen for hours at a time. “Take some breaks and walk away from the sound intensity,” he says.

Carolyn K. Novaleski ’10 was the student co-chair of the study’s research committee. An iPod user, she prefers loud music, but limits the amount of time she is plugged in to her device to “maybe one to two hours a week.” Novaleski, who earned a bachelor’s degree in speech pathology/audiology and receives her master’s degree this spring, is representative of others in her field.

The BU survey showed students in communication-related majors, such as speech-language pathology/ audiology, education of the deaf and hard of hearing and American Sign Language interpreters, are less likely to set their iPods at higher volumes in noisy backgrounds. They also are more likely to believe that manufacturers of MP3 players should build devices to limit audio/volume level settings, an option available in current iPod software.

Other major findings are:
• Male students are more likely to listen to iPods at louder volume levels than females.
• Non-white students are more likely to listen at louder volume levels than white students.

“Ultimately … our role is an educational one,” Smith says of the survey. “If users have the information they can make an informed decision about their iPod use.” •

Becky Lock is a writer, editor and photographer who works and lives in Pennsylvania.

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