The ability to listen privately to audio has changed the world in many ways. You can almost guarantee that if you use public transport, you’ll be able to hear the distinctive crackle of a pair of headphones or see a number of travellers using the popular white headphones bob-along the escalator on your daily commute. Mobile phones, tablets, computers and laptops all use headphones or earphones and their use is increasing for consuming media, music, podcasts and films on the go. Apple reportedly sold 28 million of their ‘AirPods’ in 2018, making them their most popular accessory to date. Headphones and earphones have become a daily stable of modern society but it is estimated that more than one billion 12 – 35 year olds risk irreversible hearing loss from exposure to loud sounds.

The World Health Organisation (“WHO”) and the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) have issued a new international standard for the manufacture and use of audio devices to make them safer for listening. Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, WHO Director-General stated: “Given that we have the technological know-how to prevent hearing loss, it should not be the case that so many young people continue to damage their hearing while listening to music… This new WHO-ITU standard will do much to better safeguard these young consumers…”

The standard was developed under WHO’s “Make Listening Safe” initiative which seeks to improve listening practices, especially among young people, both when they are exposed to music (and other sounds at noisy entertainment venues) and as they listen to music through their personal audio devices. WHO recommends that governments and manufacturers adopt the voluntary WHO-ITU standard. Civil society, in particular professional associations and others that promote hearing care, also have a role to play in advocating for the standard and in raising public awareness about the importance of safe listening practices so that consumers demand products that protect them from hearing loss.

Currently there are 466 million people in the world with disabling hearing loss (6.1% of the world’s population). WHO have estimated that unless action is taken, it is likely that the number of people with disabling hearing loss will grow over the coming years and projections show that the number could rise to 630 million by 2030 and may be over 900 million in 20501. Further, Action on Hearing Loss says overexposure to loud music can trigger tinnitus. Tinnitus is a medical term used to describe a ringing or buzzing noise that people can hear in one ear or both ears2 . It is often caused by exposure to loud music and can be accompanied by hearing loss.

In order to limit exposure to tinnitus and stop the increase in hearing loss, the safe listening devices and systems: a WHO-ITU standard recommends that personal audio devices include a ‘sound allowance’ function which is software that tracks the level and duration of the user’s exposure to sound as a percentage used of a reference exposure. Some companies, such as Samsung, are already using this function. The software prevents the listener from raising the volume unless they have read the warning notification and confirmed they have agreed it. Action on Hearing Loss confirm that the most simple and effective first step would be the lower the volume limit on your own device, which WHO also recommends. Currently all audio devices, including mobile phones, sold within the EU should have this option, although it is entirely down to the owner to activate this feature and most owners are unaware of it. Further, while these functions limit the volume and remind a consumer that they are listening at an excessive volume or for too long, they do not actually protect your hearing and they can easily be ignored, overridden or simply left unused by the consumer.

WHO also recommends that more general information and guidance to consumers on safe listening practices, both through personal audio devices and for other leisure activities, e.g. live music events, should be made available more widely to users3. Consumers should also have an individualized listening profile, based on the user’s listening practices, which inform the user of how safely (or not) he or she has been listening and gives cues for action based on this information. Nevertheless consumers may continue to ignore this information. Without reading the information provided or the alerts that ‘pop up’ they are none the wiser as to how their hearing is being affected. Consumers can be effectively protected if they make the choice to help themselves, device manufacturers ensure that appropriate safeguards are built into their products and the government and medical professionals provide direct (and hard-hitting) information to illustrate what damage can be done to their hearing. If in any doubt turn the volume down!