Binge listening a threat to young ears

When you hear the word ‘binge’, you most likely think of eating or drinking. However, a recent study from the National Acoustic Laboratories (NAL) on exposure to leisure noise saw a new connotation. One participant coined the term ‘binge listening’: infrequent exposure to excessively loud noise.

Nowadays, mp3 players are ubiquitous, as are music festivals and concerts, yet no one had looked at patterns of noise exposure before, says Elizabeth Beach, Research Psychologist at NAL, a division of Australian Hearing.

Party people at a pop concert

NAL investigated the impact of leisure noise on young Australians aged between 18–35 by giving them dosimeters—small noise-level meters—while going about their normal routine. NAL found that some had quiet times during the week in study or at work, but on Saturday came activities “many times louder”.

“We don’t want to overplay it. It is a small number of people who seem to be [binge listening],” says Beach, adding that it seems only to occur for a short period of time in a young person’s life.

Are your ears ringing?

The research shows there’s no increase in hearing loss in Australians 35 and under, but Beach says there can be hearing problems down the track.

“Hearing loss is the end result, but before that people can experience all sorts of communication difficulties.”

And even though there is no evidence of an increase in diagnosed hearing loss, there’s a greater incidence of tinnitus (ringing in the ears) amongst people who engage in noisy activities on a regular basis than others.

“Tinnitus can be a very debilitating condition, particularly if it becomes permanent. And our message to people is that if they’re going out and regularly experiencing tinnitus … then that is a sign that damage has occurred to the hearing system. And we’re hoping that people are beginning to see that as a bit of a warning sign.”

Think you might have experienced tinnitus? Check the signs here.

Acceptable noise levels

Beach acknowledges music’s popularity and says being able to listen to and enjoy music in its purest form without any resulting hearing impairment at all is achievable.

The message is to enjoy music, but to enjoy it safely, and to think about minimising your exposure to really loud music.

Elizabeth Beach, Research Psychologist at NAL

Beach says, for now it’s a matter of self-regulation. Although entertainment venues are regulated by the same OH&S standards as the industrial sector for sound levels and noise pollution, they continue to play music at excessive levels.

The standards say people can be exposed to noise at 85 decibels for eight hours a day, over a period of five days a week. However, even though that’s considered an acceptable level of risk, Beach says a percentage of those people will end up with hearing loss.

Tips for concert goers

Simple things people can do when attending a loud venue include:

  • Move away from the speakers; small distances can make a big difference to your exposure.
  • Limit the amount of time you’re exposed—if you are going to a festival on the weekend, perhaps don’t use your mp3 player as much during the week.
  • Trust yourself—research shows people are good at judging noise levels in their environment.If you think it’s too loud, it is too loud,” says Beach, saying this can be a trigger to reduce noise exposure or use ear plugs.
  • Wear ear plugs.
Music festival and ticketing agency websites occasionally warn that noise levels may exceed harmful levels and recommend ear plugs, and it’s a message Beach encourages, saying it’s important to be aware of noise level exposure and be proactive about addressing it.
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