Photograph by Kevin Van Aelst
By VIRGINIA HEFFERNAN
Published: January 7, 2011 • Recommend • Twitter • Linkedin • Sign In to E-Mail • Print •
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One in ﬁve teenagers in America can’t hear rustles or whispers, according to a study published in August in The Journal of the American Medical Association. These teenagers exhibit what’s known as slight hearing loss, which means they often can’t make out consonants like T’s or K’s, or the plinking of raindrops. The word “talk” can sound like “aw.” The number of teenagers with hearing loss — from slight to severe — has jumped 33 percent since 1994.
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Illustrations by Olimpia Zagnoli
Given the current ubiquity of personal media players — the iPod appeared almost a decade ago — many researchers attribute this widespread hearing loss to exposure to sound played loudly and regularly through headphones. (Earbuds, in particular, don’t cancel as much noise from outside as do headphones that rest on or around the ear, so earbud users typically listen at higher volume to drown out interference.) Indeed, the August report reinforces the findings of a 2008 European study of people who habitually blast MP3 players, including iPods and smartphones. According to that report, headphone users who listen to music at high volumes for more than an hour a day risk permanent hearing loss after five years.
Maybe the danger of digital culture to young people is not that they have hummingbird attention spans but that they are going deaf.
The history of headphones has always been one of unexpected uses and equally unexpected consequences. Headphones were invented more than a century ago. According to some accounts, modern headphones were the brainchild of Nathaniel Baldwin, a tinkerer from Utah who grew frustrated when he couldn’t hear Mormon sermons