Harmful Effects of Headphones

Harmful Effects of Headphones and Earbuds

People these days where headphones constantly. Not just the big headphones, but also earbuds. You see them everywhere, on subway, on the train, on their bicycles, and cars, at the library and in the grocery store.

Gone are the days when people would walk around without some sort of music playing in their ears. I guess it’s not even just music, it’s podcasts, Ted Talks and the audio from a video that might be playing.

It used to be in the old days, people only suffered from hearing loss at a job where machinery was too loud.  The hearing loss couldn’t be avoided, because people had to go to work, and they had to do their jobs. Now we see it in folks who are essentially doing it to themselves, for personal entertainment and pleasure.

I have to say that is not uncommon for me to see young people wearing headphones, blasting music into their ears over the sound of a loud machine, such as a lawn mower or weed trimmer. I cringe to think how loud the music must have to be in their ears for them to be able to hear it over the top of the sound machine and I can only imagine what it is doing to the insides of their ears.

There’s nothing wrong with listening to music through headphones

I love music, and I listen to it constantly. But having reviewed the research about the impact of headphones, I am moving towards playing it through speakers rather than headphones, and at a lower level than I would have previously.

Unfortunately, wearing headphones constantly can have some harmful and unfortunately permanent side effects. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with listening to music through headphones. But there are damaging effects when the sound is being delivered into the ear at a rate that is too loud and over an extended period of time.

The amount of hearing loss that one will suffer depends on the volume of the sound, and the amount of time that the sound is delivered to the ear.

Theoretically, if a person listens to music at a level that is damaging, he might not suffer long lasting effects if he only listens to the sound at that level for a short period of time, and then takes a break from listening to music at such a high level or to any music at all for a time.

How is sound from headphones damaging our ears?

Sound is measured in decibels. For perspective, sound at 85 decibels or below is safe for the ear and does not cause hearing loss. If you are exposed to sound greater than 90 decibels or a long period of time each day without hearing protection, you will suffer from hearing loss. As the volume increases, the time that you can safely listen to the sound decreases.

How do you know if the level at what you are listening to your music through your headphones is damaging your ears?  One way to do this is to ask someone to help you. Turn on your music as you would normally listen to it and put the headphones on. After a minute or so, turn the headphones off and ask the person sitting with you if they can hear the music coming from your headphones. If they can, it is likely that you are listening to the music at a level that is damaging your hearing.

Another test is to put music on your headphones, put them on, and then ask someone else in the room to try and speak to you. Then ask them to raise their voice. You should be able to tell that she is saying something when she raises her voice, but maybe not necessarily exactly what she is saying.

Or, you can wear your headphones as you normally might, but pay attention to the world around you. Can you hear police or ambulance sirens/horns from a reasonable distance? If you cannot, then your music is too loud.

If people who are sitting 10 to 15 feet away from you can hear the music coming from your headphones, it is too loud.

Are concerned about the level of sound coming from your earbuds or your headphones? Consider trying to measure the sound yourself. You can download a decibel meter app that is free for your mobile phone and test out your technology at home.

Finally, there is some research coming out showing that sleeping in earbuds or in headphones pressing in or on your ears can actually cause the death of the delicate tissues being rubbed on by your earbuds.

Other side effects of headphones that few people are talking about

Listening to music, movies, podcasts while we sleep

Another thing that not many people talk about but people should be exploring is the impact on our brains of the sensory input of wearing headphones all the time, even while we are sleeping. This hasn’t been well-researched yet. But when there is a sensory input coming into our brains while we are sleeping, our brains may not perform sleep duties normally.

While you sleep, your brain stays awake and active. It takes care of housekeeping, removing toxins and buildup, re-energizes the cells, clears out waste, and more. During sleep, your brainwaves, change. All of this is critical to our health and well-being.

There is growing evidence that listening to music or other auditory inputs while sleeping can impact those brainwaves, and the ability of your brain to do that housekeeping it needs to do every night while you sleep. Some argue that the result of listening to music while sleeping is positive, while others argue the opposite. Regardless, it bears watching if this is something you do consistently.

Similar impacts to neurological disease

Other studies have shown that loud music listened to through earphones or headphones can have a similar effect upon nerves as multiple sclerosis. The research shows that sound levels exceeding 110 decibels can actually permanently strip the insulation from nerve fibers that carry information between the ear and the brain.

Radiation from headphones/earbuds may cause cancer

This has not been confirmed, there is mounting evidence suggesting that the radiation coming from bluetooth earbuds or headphones can cause brain cancer or tumors.

Other studies suggest that wireless headphones can cause irreparable DNA damage, weakening the blood-brain barrier, and cause neuronal damage.

The research on the impact of radiation and bluetooth is still in its nascent stages, and worth watching.

Social Impacts of headphones

If you are a parent, you have undoubtedly seen the impact of your teen wearing headphones on his social abilities. Since young people can now completely disappear into a world of their own through headphones, they do not have to interact socially, with their parents, siblings, or even out in the world. Teens these days massively lack soft skills, and as a result, they are struggling to succeed out in the world after they leave their parents’ homes.

Because they have not had adequate social interactions with adults (due to cell phone and headphone use), a lot of young people don’t even realize what the rules of appropriate communication are out in the world. They may use curse words in the work place, struggle to send professional emails, fail to hold up a conversation on the phone, or participate in group discussions. While young people are comfortable with technology, they are lost when it comes to actual interaction with humans.

Conflict Resolution Skills

People who disappear into headphones to solve problems do not learn to resolve them. Not surprisingly, young people really struggle in the workplace to resolve conflicts with coworkers and for customers. They do not handle conflict related stress well, and fail to overcome conflict in general.


We are seeing a rise overall in mental health problems, especially anxiety. One of the first “treatments” prescribed to someone with anxiety (other than drugs) is to start practicing mindfulness and meditation. To calm the mind, people must learn to gain control over their thoughts, the speed at which they move in their heads, the topic, and the tenor. When a person has spent his whole life regulating or distracting his mind with external inputs, such as music or podcasts, he will completely lack any ability to control impulsive thoughts on his own.

I think we can definitely attribute growing mental health problems with social media (this connection is clear), but less clear is the connection between technology and mental discipline. I would argue that technology has caused us to neglect mental discipline, and anxiety is a result.

Put us in danger

When you are wearing headphones, you can’t hear what is going on around you. People wearing headphones inadvertently place themselves in danger because they cannot sense danger sounds. Honking horns, approaching cars, whistles, yells, motors, for example. Plus, when you are listening and really engaged with something you are hearing, you don’t pay as much attention to the world around you, even if you can hear.

Can earbuds cause ear infections?

Yes, they definitely can. Unless you obsessively clean your earbuds or headphones, every time you put them on your ears, you introduce dirt and bacteria to the ecosystem of your ears. This is even true of headphones, which you do not actually put inside your ears, because that dirt/bacteria can get into your ears anyway. As a result, you raise the risk for yourself of an ear infection, allergic reaction, or rash.

Earbuds can also cause a buildup of ear wax. The buds can push the wax deeper into the ear, where it is difficult to reach or clean.

Are headphones harmful?

As with anything, headphones should be used with moderation, with balance. Headphones won’t harm you or your ears if you listen to them at a moderate level, and you give your ears a break. Don’t wear them all the time when you leave the house. Leave them off while you operate loud machinery, and wear earplugs to protect your ears instead. Avoid headphones while commuting on your bike, scooter, motorcycle, or in your car.

Looking out for your ears? Check out our review of our favorite earbuds.