04/12/2013 12:05 pm ET Updated Jun 12, 2013

The Hearing Question

Virtually anyone will agree that the sight of a teenager clad with headphones is ubiquitous in modern America. After all, music provides a much-needed escape from daily demands, an invaluable release from the pressure that life exerts. However, as compounding research and a good look around increasingly confirm, booming, blaring music surging through headphones for extended periods of time is sure to spell out hearing disaster.

In March of last year, the Center for Disease Control and Prevention reported that, among 5.2 million six to 19-year-olds, 12.5 percent have sustained permanent noise-induced hearing damage. In addition, according to a study from the Journal of the American Medical Association, the amount of American teenagers with some degree of hearing loss notably increased from the period 1988-1994 to the period 2005-2006.

Some researchers hypothesize that this can be attributed to the new ease of access to various types of portable media players. After all, it seems all too natural to plug in headphones to drown out the hum on the bus ride home, to enliven the mundaneness of homework, to ease the ennui of walking the dog, or to escape the vexing silence at the dinner table. This seemingly endless gravitation towards these rather gratifying devices raises the specter of a generation starting down the road toward lasting hearing ramifications.

Perhaps the first step to rectifying this new reality is to lay bare the facts about why continuously listening to loud music through headphones can be auditorily traumatic. Simply put, the eardrum in each ear is attached to three bones: the hammer, the anvil and the stirrup.

As sound waves travel into each ear, they vibrate the eardrum and subsequently the three aforementioned bones. The vibration is then conveyed to the cochlea, where it is converted to electrical signals that are interpreted by the brain.

The issue is that sound waves penetrating from headphones place excess stress on the eardrum, the three middle ear bones, and the cells of the cochlea, eventually impairing their abilities to function effectively. And the damage sustained seldom stagnates; it often crescendos as the years wears on.

Evidently, it remains up to teens to both limit the usage of headphones to an appropriate amount of time and to turn the volume down a few notches in order to preserve the treasure trove of our auditory sense. It remains up to teens to realize what a gift there is in being able to hear the unique voices of family, friends, and neighbors; to hear a chorus of sweet laughter fill the air; to hear the symphony of birds and the rustle of leaves; to hear applause from an admiring crowd; and to hear those words of comfort and joy that can enliven any day.

Of course, listening to thundering music for hours on end can seem tantalizing in the moment, as it infuses elements of energy and vigor. But clearly, "To hear or not to hear?" is one weighty question that ought to be pressing hard on the teens of today.

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