Listen carefully: How research on hearing can change our habits

Do you tune out the world by listening to your favourite music, podcasts or movies with your headphones? Listen up and make sure you’re taking care of your hearing.

Although only 4 to 5% of people admit to some level of hearing loss, research has shown that approximately 19% of Canadian adults experience hearing loss in at least one ear.

Dr. Katya Feder, a Research Scientist at Health Canada, has been looking into how to safely use personal listening devices (such as cell phones or other audio devices using headphones or earbuds) in order to avoid hearing loss.

A laboratory study of different models of personal listening devices had found that someone listening at full volume could damage hearing in 3 to 12 minutes. The question was: how many were listening at unsafe volumes?

To find the answer, Dr. Feder developed a questionnaire aimed at examining the listening habits of children and teenagers aged 10 to 17. Her health background as an occupational therapist prompted her to advocate for adding a clinical component to the project by testing participants’ hearing. The results turned out to be eye opening — or should we say, “ear opening”!

“When we recorded listening volumes of participants’ devices on our special mannequin, most listened at safe levels, however a few were listening at levels so loud it blew out our equipment,” remembers Dr. Feder. “Although it wasn’t the goal of the study, we did feel a responsibility to provide feedback to some of the teenagers to warn them of the risk of hearing damage if they continued to listen at such high volumes.”

Dr. Feder was also involved in a large-scale study of hearing and noise exposure through the Canadian Health Measures Survey. The researchers looked at how 10,000 Canadians were exposed to noise in their workplace and during their leisure time.

“We had never had hearing tests on a nationally-representative scale before,” she says. “The first tests were done from 2012 to 2015 and we are planning more in the future.”

This research will support the assessment of risks from personal listening devices and other sources of noise.

Encouraging safe listening

Dr. Feder is part of the World Health Organization’s Safe Listening Initiative. The experts contributing to this initiative have developed material and recommendations for safe listening devices and systems such as warnings, volume limiting and tracking software and safe listening information on packaging. The strategies of this initiative also include providing governments with safe listening information to help inform their own risk management strategies.

“Worldwide, 1.1 billion young people are experiencing hearing loss. It’s not just about how loud, but also how long,” says Dr. Feder. “Some devices have built-in software which can monitor listening habits and provide advice and warnings to users when they have surpassed a safe limit.”

Dr. Feder also warns that different types of earbuds and headphones deliver different levels of noise. Using noise-cancelling headphones can be good because users can listen at a lower volume because the headset blocks out ambient noise that might entice them to turn the volume up. On the other hand, these types of headphones might cause damage if the user chooses to listen at a high level.

“Anytime someone is wearing earbuds or headphones, sound is being delivered directly into the ear, which means there is a potential risk,” explains Katya.

It is up to the user to use their judgment about how loud and how long they listen to their device. “It’s perfectly fine to listen for as long as you want, if the volume is under 75 to 80 decibels,” she says. The WHO recommendations for recreational noise exposure are to keep sound levels lower than 85 decibels for adults and 75 decibels for children.

“The general guideline for safe personal listening device usage is to keep the volume just under half the maximum volume of the device,” recommends Dr. Feder. If you are trying to decide if a noise may be harmful to your hearing, a good rule of thumb to use is “If you have to yell to speak to someone standing an arm’s length away, it’s too loud!”

Using a volume limiter to set the maximum volume and having messaging on your device which lets you know when you are close to exceeding your safe limit for that 24-hour period is valuable. “The key message is: it’s all about how long and how loud you listen. We need to keep working on the education component.”

Dr. Feder and her colleagues hope to follow up with some of the original study participants, who are now in their 20s, to see how their listening levels and hearing may have changed over time. This should be exciting research as there are few studies examining personal listening device usage and hearing over time.


Let’s draw attention to the incredible work of women in science! This article is part of a month-long series celebrating women in science, from International Day of Women and Girls in Science (February 11) to International Women’s Day (March 8).