Kimberly Sena Moore Ph.D.

Your Musical Self

Are Headphones Harming Us?

Unplug and rediscover what's around you

Posted May 30, 2014

I readily admit that I am guilty of aural self-isolation.

Just the other night, while making dinner, I missed an entire meaningful conversation between my husband and children. I was completely oblivious, not because I was engrossed in the cooking, but because I was engrossed in a book being transmitted through two small, white earbuds.

Like taking an extra-long time in the bathroom with phone in hand, I use these small white earbuds as a way to escape from the stress and chaos that often seems to accompany family life. My bouts of self-isolation do not last long—generally while cooking supper or if I manage to sneak in an extra 15-minute workout—but they are a welcome and temporary escape.

I know I'm not alone in using headphones to self-isolate. In fact, much has been written about it, generally with the slant of the harm it can cause.

There is, of course, the physical harm that can occur to your auditory nerve cells when blasting loud noise at such close proximity, an effect that has even been found in adolescents.

The physical harm can even extend to not allowing yourself to hear the auditory cues in the environment. I wonder about this every time I go for my morning run, phone strapped to my bicep, sport headphones in place. Will I miss any sounds that could potentially alert me to danger?

Then there is the more difficult-to-measure concept of social isolation. Does our earbud use prevent us from engaging in socially meaningful interactions? Others have written about this, wondering whether the accessibility and portability of our devices is making us anti-social.  

But is there a balance? Well, I don't have an answer and I'd be surprised if anyone else does. For starters, there are too many factors involved, which means there is no one "right" way to achieve a balance. These factors include our individual personailities, our goals or needs in the moment, and the situation or context.

Perhaps, though, it would be better for all of us to introduce intentionality and purpose to our headphone use and in when we choose to plug in . . . and when we don't. What if we each challenged ourselves to unplug at a time we're normally plugged in? For me it would be while making dinner. For others it might be while walking, or taking the subway, or shopping. It's hard to predict what might happen, but it's enticing to think about the new experiences, new sounds, and new encounters that may emerge when we expose ourselves to our auditory environment and interact with what's around us.

I don't think I'm ready yet to give up my morning run book reading . . . but perhaps it's time for me to unplug and embrace the beautiful loud chaos and meaningful family conversations of my home.

Follow me on Twitter @KimberlySMoore for daily updates on the latest research and articles related to music, music therapy, and music and the brain. I invite you also to check out my website,, for additional information, resources, and strategies.

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