Technology has enabled us to be connected like never before. With smartphones, we can watch videos, listen to music, and chat with anyone around the world at any time and from anywhere. These developments have significantly transformed the way we live, work, and play. But can all of this connectivity be too much of a good thing?
The use of technology has brought about significant health risks – particularly to our hearing. From the growing prevalence of earbuds to the effects of reduced cognitive function that can occur when walking around while looking at our smartphones, the risks can be significant. But just as technology is a cause of the problem, it is also part of the solution.
Advanced technology, increased damage to hearing
Earbuds are among the most widely used smartphone accessories. We use them to listen to music or watch videos during exercise, on the commute to work, or at night when everyone else is asleep. With a rise in the variety of earbuds available, including wireless options, their adoption has grown tremendously. Unfortunately, the convenience of such devices comes with a major drawback, as they can contribute to early hearing loss, especially among the younger generation.
Rather that fitting over the ears like traditional headphones, earbuds are inserted directly into the ear canal. Being in such close proximity to the eardrum, the potential for damaging your hearing is much greater. Since earbuds do little to block out ambient noise, we tend to turn up the volume even more in loud environments and further increase the risk. When listening to audio through earbuds for an extended period– which is usually the norm today – the chance of getting noise-induced hearing loss is multiplied.
The documented rise in hearing loss is staggering. According to the American Osteopathic Association, one in five teenagers already has some form of hearing loss. This is an increase of about 30 percent since the 1990s. In addition, the World Health Organization states that 1.1 billion people between the ages of 12 and 35 are at risk of developing hearing loss due to unsafe use of personal audio devices. As smartphone technology and accessories become less expensive, the danger to people around the world and of all ages will only increase.
Despite the risks that listening to music through our smart devices presents, this doesn’t mean we should avoid it – we just need to be smarter. For instance, limit the time spent using earbuds and keep the volume below a certain level. As that threshold differs from person to person based on the degree of hearing loss, consult with your audiologist about safe limits when listening to music. Additionally, you can switch to wireless over-the-ear headphones that provide the same level of connectivity to your smartphone but also help reduce the chance of getting noise-induced hearing loss. If those headphones include noise cancelation, you can further minimize the need to turn up the volume and better protect your hearing.
The dangers of distracted walking
The risks posed by smartphones go beyond the direct impact of loud music on your hearing. When looking at a smartphone while walking, you’re less likely to hear or see other stimuli, including vehicles and other people. That risk can be even greater for those with hearing loss. When the mind is preoccupied, spatial awareness is further reduced – you might not be sure where a car is coming from, or hear someone calling you from across the street.
A report by the Governors Highway Safety Association found that 6,000 pedestrian deaths occurred in the United States in 2016 – the highest number in more than 20 years and likely resulting from increased smartphone use. Moreover, a study from Stony Brook University found that people using cell phones while walking are 61 percent more likely to veer off course, increasing the risk of injury to themselves and others. At the same time, distracted walking isn’t just limited to the street – it is just as likely to happen in the home when paying more attention to the phone than what’s in front of you.
Today’s modern hearing aids can help protect you against such occurrences, without giving up your phone. By connecting your hearing aids to your smartphone via the hearing aid manufacturer’s app, you can enhance your awareness of the world around you.
How can an app help you be safer? Smartphones have built-in gyrometers and/or accelerometers that determine the orientation and position of the device, and in turn, yourself. Using the information gained from these sensors, the hearing aids can learn the best listening situation for amplification and directionality based on your movement. This is helpful because when in motion, sounds are rarely in front of you and come at you from 360 degrees. While the traditional, unconnected hearing aids typically focus attention just to the front, app-supported hearing aids help you hear noises all around.
Additionally, connected hearing aids are designed to detect the acoustic environment while walking, and thus improve your spatial awareness and sense of balance. Even if you’re talking to someone else, the smart devices enable you to hear your conversation partner effortlessly as well as the ambient sounds like passing traffic and other street noises to ensure your safety. With hearing aids enhanced by advanced motion sensor classification systems, you gain full situational awareness to focus on any potential dangers, even when looking at your phone.
More ways to be smart on the go
Using an app connected to your hearing aids can reduce the risk of falls or accidents when crossing the street. But that’s not the only way to protect yourself if using your phone while walking. Following are several other ways you can use technology to improve your safety while on the go:
- If you tend to read on your phone while walking, you can download a text-to-speech app to have the phone read text to you – just remember to pause it at a crosswalk to be safer when crossing the street.
- There are a number of cutting-edge apps to help if you don’t have the willpower to put the phone down or look away from it. Some apps can detect if you’re about to reach a crosswalk, posting an alert on your phone. Others recognize when you’re at an intersection and completely lock the screen until you get to the other side.
- If you tend to text while walking, consider using the smartphone’s voice-to-text function to keep your eyes and ears more focused on the environment.
- Another option is to download an app that makes it easy to text on the go. These apps use your smartphone’s camera to display what’s in front of you while your messages appear in the foreground, allowing you to see where you’re going.
A smart approach to technology
In the rush to adopt new technologies, we often do so without thinking how they will impact our health. This is especially true when it comes to hearing, since the ability to connect our ears to our smartphones significantly increases the risk of hearing loss and poses new dangers to those already hard of hearing. However, this enhanced level of connectivity has also introduced new ways to protect yourself by connecting your hearing aids to your smartphones.
While the widespread use of smartphones has introduced new dangers, if you’re smart with your smart technology, you can use those devices to protect your hearing and your overall health.
Navid Taghvaei, Au.D. is an Educational Specialist with Signia brand hearing aids. He is responsible for conducting very complex individual and group technical training courses and activities involving new and existing developments in the areas of audiology, products, software, and technology for employees and customers. He demonstrates multi-system products by preparing and conducting clinician training, supports clinical product offerings, and performs in-house clinical trials for the Audiology Department team. He has extensive clinical experience in pediatric and adult hearing instrument and cochlear implant fitting, programming, and rehabilitation. He has served as a practicing Clinical Director of Audiology in multiple multi-disciplinary otolaryngology and audiology clinics in the U.S. and internationally. Navid received his doctorate in Audiology and master’s degree in Hearing Science from the University of Louisville School of Medicine and his bachelor’s degree in Cognitive Psychology from Arizona State University. He has also served as a lecturer and Clinical Preceptor at both universities for audiology and psychology courses.
*featured image courtesy pixabay