Old Public Health Guy's Plea: Don't Wear Your Headphones All the Time

Despite my medical and public health concerns, the real reason I wish people would stop wearing headphones to listen to music in public is simply that it's isolating and impolite.
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This is going to sound like just another old guy rant, I'm afraid. But it's not. Or at least that's not all it is: I propose that people stop wearing headphones when they are out in public.

Now I realize that I'm already showing my age and lack of hipness by calling them headphones. The correct term of art is at least ear buds, if not some name I don't even know. But you get the idea: those little speakers on a cord, usually white, that are crammed into everyone's ears as they walk around, sit on the subway or ride in an elevator. They drive me crazy.

First, they're intrusive. I can't sit on a bus anymore without hearing the thumping bass or sizzling cymbals from my seatmate's mixtapes that are leaking out of his headphones.

Second, they can hurt your hearing, especially when you wear them for hours at a time. Young people in my office wear headphones not only when out and about but also while working at their desks. Accumulating evidence suggests that this longer exposure correlates with increased risk of hearing loss (1). If someone can hear your earphone leakage from several feet away, it's too loud.

More serious than harming your hearing, though, it appears that earphone use in public can actually endanger your life. I know this anecdotally because the brother of a friend was clubbed and left for dead by two guys who snuck up on him while he was taking a walk listening to music with headphones on (2). More scientifically, a study was released last week that documents headphone use among pedestrians who were injured or killed by cars and trains (3). It looks like wearing headphones is a real risk factor for injury.

But despite my medical and public health concerns, the real reason I wish people would stop wearing headphones to listen to music in public is simply that it's isolating and impolite.

I ride the bus or subway to work almost every day. When I look around me, it seems like everyone's eyes are glued to a newspaper, book or screen and their ears are plugged in to some music. I'm not looking for deep conversation, but you can make a casual comment to someone who is reading and they can look up and nod, or grunt or reply. Not so when their ears are stuffed with an earbud. It is profoundly isolating. Same thing on the street. I walk past people in their own worlds, ears (and presumably minds) engaged elsewhere, completely shut off from the environment around them. It has become the new normal, as if we are floating past each other in our individual cocoons, walled off from everyone else.

Bottom line? Leave your ear buds at home. Go out and listen to what's going on around you. The birds, the traffic. People talking. You'll be safer. You'll protect your hearing. And maybe you'll even strike up a conversation with the old guy reading a newspaper sitting across from you on the bus.

Family physician Douglas Kamerow, a former Assistant Surgeon General, is the author of "Dissecting American Health Care." He is a chief scientist at the research institute RTI International.

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For more by Douglas Kamerow, M.D., click here.


(1) Knox R. Kids' use of earbuds worries hearing experts. NPR Morning Edition, April 26, 2007: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=9797364#9816631

(2) Janofsky M. Police Pursue Leads in Journalist's Killing. New York Times, January 10, 2006. http://www.nytimes.com/2006/01/10/politics/10david.html.

(3) Lichenstein R, Smith DC, Ambrose JL, Moody LA. Headphone use and pedestrian injury and death in the United States: 2004-2011. Injury Prevention. doi:10.1136/injuryprev-2011-040161.

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