Shut Up and Listen!

One Man's Quest for Absolute Silence

iPods--and more insidious noise--are ruining your teen's hearing

Our society is noise-sick, partly because of low-level sounds

Remember that soft suggestion to clean up her room, that your teenager ignored last night? The ignoring was not necessarily due to attitude, laziness, or general teen rebellion. 

It might have been due to hearing loss.

One in five! That's the percentage of US teens suffering from deteriorated hearing, according to a study Brigham and Women's Hospital unveiled in Boston last month.

That study should sound as a clear alarm bell to health policy makers. It ought to make them think very hard about the US National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) standards for iPods and MP3 devices, which recommend listening to such devices at an 85 decibel volume for a maximum of 8 hours, when researchers warn that hearing damage can occur at a point somewhere between 18 and 90 minutes.

But it's not just high volume that's the culprit here. Health policy-makers must take particular notice of the fact that the study did not specifically blame screaming sirens, or other high-volume noises, for the problem.

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Our society is afflicted with noise-sickness, and only part of the disease is due to subway train racket, rock 'n roll jams, or other ear-torturing sounds. In researching my book on silence and noise, I went through reams of info demonstrating that chronic sound environments of relatively low scale--55 decibels, for example, the level of traffic in Greenwich, Conn.--have very concrete effects on cardiac health. Cardiac health affects blood flow; screwed-up blood flow hurts hearing. Low-level sound, on a chronic basis, adds to stress, which degrades health overall. Hearing damage among the young has knock-on effects such as lower grades, poor self-esteem-and, of course, messy rooms.

Not a lot of rules exist to deal with the problem of low-level, chronic sound. New York's anti-noise law, which limits (for example) the noise each individual air-conditioner can make to 45 dB, is highly progressive in that respect.

Weak health regulations are only part of the problem, however. The big issue is this: we, as a society, are in love with noise sickness. Far more than, say, the Japanese, our culture equates big sound with celebration, success, active cash registers. Cultural anthropologists such as Feldstein and Sloan have proved Americans are conditioned to trust people who talk loudly, and view those who stay silent with suspicion. Silence, in the words of Scollon, is a "metaphor of malfunction." In the course of many interviews conducted in writing my book, I got the strong impression that most people fear silence, perhaps to the same extent that they are helpless: helpless to exist independently of the system that destroys it.

Yet silence, or at least, a practical version of it: a quiet, comfortable, pleasant, and above all, desired soundscape in which to live-is vital to counter, not only hearing damage, but the high stress content of our infotainment society. Until health industry professionals, and the culture generally, accept relative silence as a crucial policy goal, the hearing and health of our teenagers-as well as the rest of us-will continue to deteriorate.

(A different version of this piece appeared in the New York Times' op-ed section last month)

 

George Michelsen Foy, a novelist and journalist, teaches creative writing at NYU. His latest book, Zero Decibels: The Quest for Silence, is published by Scribner.

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