Our senses are paramount, uniting the world constructed inside of our minds to the actual shared universe that resides outside of our heads. However, as we age, these senses, specifically sight and hearing, fade naturally, and those affected must remedy the loss. For example, approximately one in three people in the United States between the ages of 65 and 74 have hearing loss, and nearly half of those older than 75 have difficulty hearing. This age related hearing loss is known as presbycusis.
Similarly, after the age of 40, people will generally begin to experience presbyopia, a normal change in the eye’s focusing ability, which can be troublesome for seeing clearly at close distances, especially when reading and working on a computer.
However, our understanding of vision and hearing loss, while being observed in the 20th Century, a time that was far from humanity’s most natural environment, is still derived from common natural forces. Today, we live in a vastly different world, where people can access practically any kind of information by looking into a screen and personalize their experience by cramming headphones into their ears. Unfortunately, as many believe, this might be accelerating the onset of hearing and vision problems.
Vision Loss from Technology
On a mass consumer scale, the first screens outside of movie theaters appeared on televisions. In the late-40s, a large amount of Americans had access to a growing number of television programs; by the mid-50s, half of all homes in the United States had a TV. While these were viewed frequently (and children would often sit too close to them), they didn’t occupy the same amount of an individual’s time as electronic screens do in more recent history.
The main point here is that younger generations have been greatly exposed to screens for the majority of their lives. Personal computers first became popular in the mid-80s, and they quite obviously grew in use throughout the decades that followed. However, overexposure to screens doesn’t come from just computers. Several years later, in 1989, Nintendo released the Game Boy, spreading video games from their use on televisions to smaller, portable screens.
Of course, the other major reason why people are staring at screens so often today is from the growth of cell phones. According to the Pew Research Center, in 2000, only 53 percent of Americans owned cell phones. Today that amount is above 90 percent, and, from the widespread standard adoption of smart phones, people today can do anything on a single device in their pocket, from accessing their bank account to playing games. In fact, the average person checks his or her phone 46 times per day, something that younger age groups do in even greater amounts.
That’s a lot of time to be looking at a single, small screen, and, when paired with working on a computer for a huge chunk of the day and glaring at additional computer, television, and handheld screens in leisure time, the young person of today can find himself or herself focusing more on a screen’s light than actual sunlight.
Fortunately, some experts assure that staring at screens for too long cannot damage your eyes, at least in the long term. However, at least 50 percent of people who work in front of a computer have reported some kind of eye trouble. This can often be understood as computer vision syndrome (CVS), a name given to the common effects of the strain that comes from staring at a computer screen for too long. Some of these symptoms include sore eyes, dry eyes, teary eyes, blurry vision, double vision, light sensitivity, difficulty focusing on images, neck pain, headache, or a combination of all of the above.
CVS can be incredibly irritating, and its aggressiveness increases the longer the person affected has been looking at a screen. Just as the problems from this stress issue fade away after you stop staring at a computer for some time, they can be prevented by careful interaction with screens in the first place. It is recommended that people who work on a computer keep their monitor somewhat lower, to better replicate reading from paper or a book, and adopt a practice in which they, after 20 minutes of work, take 20 seconds to stare at something else 20 feet away (the 20-20-20 rule). It is also important to blink regularly to prevent dryness.
While the majority of eye issues related to screens are likely temporary CVS, some ophthalmologists have posited the idea that computers could lead to long-term damage. Specifically, there is evidence that bright light can damage your retinas irreversibly. In addition, viewing from too close to a screen (on a computer, tablet, phone, or other device) could lead to other vision problems. However, as many point out, with current research it is too difficult to assess the impact that computers can have long-term on your eyes.
Hearing Loss from Technology
As for hearing loss from headphones, the evidence is far clearer. Mass-produced headphones and earphones, like screen-based devices, originate in the later 20th Century, beginning with the Sony Walkman in 1979. While there were common headphones prior to this time, those bundled with the Walkman were remarkably lighter and thus better suited for portable use. Earbuds didn’t appear for another 20 years, and they grew in usage from the first iPod.
However, the main problem with early earbuds was that they didn’t isolate sound too well. Throughout the 2000s, earbuds transitioned into earphones, which were designed to fit better into the ear canal, resulting in better isolation at lower volume. Unfortunately, this level of comfort has led to an increased, and often careless, use.
Today, most devices can produce sounds up to 120 decibels, an amount so high that hearing loss can occur after only about one hour and fifteen minutes of exposure through headphones. According to the American Osteopathic Association, you should only use headphones through MP3 devices at levels up to 60 percent of the maximum volume for a total of 60 minutes, as anything more can be detrimental to your hearing. It is also worth noting that the louder the volume, the less time you should allot for listening. This means that at maximum volume, you should not exceed five minutes per day.
However, many people don’t follow this type of advice, and the problem is especially bad in younger people. Today, 1 in 5 teens suffers from some kind of hearing loss. This rate is actually 30 percent higher than it was in the 80s and 90s, and many experts are attributing it to the overuse of earphones.
Future Vision and Hearing Loss
Currently, The Vision Council, an ANSI-accredited standards developing organization, produces standards in the ANSI ASC Z80 series, which cover different guidelines for ophthalmic lenses and sunglasses, along with the instruments used in their fabrication.
The primary standard for hearing aids is ANSI/ASA S3.22-2014 – Specification of Hearing Aid Characteristics, which covers measurements essential for their production. This was written and published by the Acoustical Society of America (ASA), which develops standards within a wide range of topics that relate to sound.
Because of the current susceptibility of sensory damage in many individuals, it is quite possible that these two organizations will see a large growth in their membership in the upcoming decades. As the young people of the technological age grow older, many will be impacted by damage to their vision and hearing, and there will need to be professionals and technology to respond.
While we can all do our best to limit the damage that earphones and computer screens have on our senses, for many, this byproduct of technology is already inevitable.