Hanging up her headphones after 16 years

Photo credit: Grzegorz

by Daniel Fink, MD, Chair, The Quiet Coalition

The Scottish newspaper The Courier has a wonderful piece by opinion writer Rebecca Baird describing how she is hanging up her headphones after “16 solid years of blocking out the world.” Baird admits that starting at about age 12, she used her personal soundtrack as a sort of musical force field while in school corridors, and then at home while she did her homework. As Baird so eloquently writes, ‘like some sort of mental health pacifier, the muffle of my earphones soothed my racing thoughts and allowed me to focus on my studies.” Photos of her taken over the years document the ubiquitous presence of her headphones or earbuds.

Then one day she forgot to grab her headphones as she left the house, but she didn’t have time to go back to get them. So she walked to work with nothing to listen to except everyday sounds instead of her personal soundtrack. To her surprise, she found that the quiet made her less anxious, and that she could “hear herself think again.” She cites a 2021 publication showing the association between earphone use and tinnitus and anxiety or depression. 

She also talks about her own left ear auditory symptoms, although I think she misquotes the prevalence of hearing loss worldwide as being only 1.7%. That number came from the first reference in the article, a paper from 1990, when the research she cites actually reports the prevalence of hearing loss in young people in South Korea from headphone use to be 22%. That comports with the WHO estimate that about 20% of the world’s population has hearing loss.

Before the Sony Walkman, the Apple iPod, or any other copycat device that followed, people were aware of their environment. They interacted with others, and either chatted with people near them or read something while traveling on public transport or sitting in a waiting room. I suppose devices that allow people to listen to personal soundtracks without bothering others are better than the boom boxes that preceded them, but I think something is lost for both the device-users and for society. Maybe part of the anomie and loneliness of life today comes from too many of us being absorbed in our own auditory worlds rather than interacting with others.

Certainly, users’ auditory health will be better if they join Baird and hang up their headphones, too.

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