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Are we addicted to our headphones?

Image by Bastian Greshake Tzovaras

Staff writer Sophia Chan provides an insight into some of the problems that arise from our widespread addiction to headphone usage.

Those who are regulars on public transportation may be familiar with the sight of their fellow commuters wearing headphones as they hurry to work. Perhaps you pop on some earbuds and put on your study playlist before you start working. Or maybe you are that flatmate who likes to listen to a podcast on their Airpods whilst they cook.

Chances are, you recognised yourself in one of these scenarios. Maybe even all three. Regardless, it is becoming increasingly clear that we have a severe headphone addiction problem.

Stimulation is the newest drug

Headphone addiction is indicative of a broader problem: our inability to be bored. The sentiment that social media has worn down our attention spans is parroted often, but clichés are typically repeated because they are true: Microsoft has suggested that the average human attention span in 2013 was 8 seconds. Given that the Internet is now playing a substantially larger role in our lives compared to in 2013, there is a large probability that our attention spans have decreased even further since then. (Note that this conclusion is under debate; there has also been research showing that human attention spans have not actually decreased despite the increased global usage of the Internet.)

To put it bluntly, we are “stimulation junkies”. Like most junkies, we are aware of the detriments of overstimulation, yet we let it happen. Another TikTok, another scroll. This doomsday scrolling creates a vicious cycle. As our attention spans become increasingly weaker, influencers create content that is even shorter and more attention-grabbing to cater to this. Our tolerance for boring content reaches a newer low as a result, and the process begins again.

Research has shown that the pursuit of boredom paradoxically exacerbates boredom because people feel less engaged and therefore interested in their tasks. The Internet has normalised the avoidance of boredom, to the extent that we avoid potential boredom before it even arises by constantly playing something on our headphones. In other words, frequent overstimulation on the Internet has translated into a need to feel audially stimulated all the time as well. Sitting in silence on the tube is too boring; we have to listen to music to compensate. Menial tasks must be completed with podcasters in your ear.

Bluetooth is another culprit. Bluetooth has substantially increased the ease of the listening experience. No longer do we need to untangle wires before listening to music; in fact, there are no longer any wires. Prior to Bluetooth, wanting to use headphones would require you to take out your phone, plug your earphones in, then putting your phone in a pocket with the wires jutting out. With Bluetooth, you simply have to turn on your headphones before putting them on. Your headphones automatically connect to your phone; taking out your phone is not needed at all. This increased convenience of using earphones motivates more people to use them in public. The normalisation of headphone usage in public signals to others that this is socially accepted behaviour, encouraging even more people to do the same.

To play devil’s advocate, I do not think that companies designed Bluetooth with the goal of exacerbating headphone addiction. Rather, they wanted to increase the ease of the user experience to increase sales of earphones; earphone addiction was simply a positive externality (or negative externality, depending on your point of view) that came about accidentally. However, I do think that moving forward, companies should be more cautious of designs that may boost societal dependency on headphones. This is unfortunately probably wishful thinking, and companies will likely do whatever they can to boost headphone addiction even further to increase profits.

The rising popularity of TikTok has been a major contributor as well. Before TikTok, the dominant social media sites were Facebook, Instagram, and Pinterest. All three are primarily visual platforms, and the user experience is not impacted much (if at all) when using these apps without sound or headphones. TikTok is different. It has an equal emphasis on visual and audio engagement, and songs and soundbites regularly go viral on the platform. Using TikTok without sound is a much less enjoyable experience compared to using it with sound. Those who want to watch TikToks in public are therefore more likely to wear headphones. Again, this has resulted in the normalisation of public earphone usage.

Short term pleasure, long term detriments

This article focuses on the negative social effects of headphone addiction, rather than the biological effects. However, note that excessive headphone usage (particularly at loud volumes) can cause ear infections, tinnitus, and hearing loss.
However, the first effect is lack of creativity. Audio distractions prevent our stream of consciousness from flowing, and our brains cannot wander because we do not have the spare capacity in our brain to do so. For example, we are too busy listening to our favourite tunes to simply sit and think. Podcasters and audiobooks are feeding opinions to us, so we do not need to form our own opinions either. Even if we get a spare, noise-free moment to ourselves, we might feel overwhelmed as a result of the constant audio stimulation that our brains are subjected to.

These ideas have been scientifically proven: researchers at the University of Central Lancashire found that boredom boosts both divergent and convergent thinking (divergent thinking is the creation of original ideas, whilst convergent thinking involves finding more traditional answers to problems).

The second effect is reduced socialisation and worsening social etiquette. Headphones are a visual cue that you do not want to interact with others, particularly if you wear larger headphones that cover the entire ear. Whilst some people do wear headphones for this exact purpose (to be fair, people on public transportation can be extremely weird), this also applies to those who do not intend this. When asked about what they used headphones for the most, one KCL student answered with this: “I was under the impression that I used [headphones] frequently purely because I liked music, but the frequency of use makes me think I may be dependent on them, [almost] like a social crutch.”

To elaborate, noise cancelling technology muffles the outside world even if they are not playing anything. The earphone-wearer may therefore feel less connected with the outside world and thus are less likely to interact with others. Noise cancelling technology also results in a lack of manners: you have surely met at least one person on the bus who wears headphones and talks loudly (and shamelessly) on Facetime. They may not be aware of how loud they are being because of their noise-cancelling earphones and seem rude as a result.

The third effect is distraction. Studies suggest that around 2.5% of the population are effective multitaskers. We are likely not part of that elusive 2.5%. When you put on a podcast or an audiobook, are you listening, or are you hearing?

There is another way that distraction can manifest. It is comforting to listen to the same music or podcasts. Transitional objects are items which provide comfort to children when separated from their primary caregiver (e.g. going to school for the first time). Children often keep transitional objects as a tool to help them become more independent from their parents. Since university is a time of turbulent changes (and for many people it is the first time that they are not living with their parents), I think the same ideas can be applied to university students as well. It is completely understandable and normal to feel intimidated by change, but resorting to headphones may result in feelings of isolation and exacerbate negative feelings.

Unfortunately, I think that headphone addiction is going to worsen in the future. Even though we are well aware of the detriments of excessive earphone usage, we have learnt and assimilated these behaviours gradually. Reversing them will therefore be a similarly slow process. This Ted talk is extremely good if you are interested in learning more.

Is it all bad?

Despite the disadvantages, there are silver linings to headphones. Often neurodiverse individuals can experience a sensory overload. Noise cancelling headphones may help them feel less overwhelmed and distracted. This also applies to those who are neurotypical but have sensitive ears, or those who live in an extremely hectic environment.

This article from HuffPost provides a different perspective on headphone usage. The author mentions that as a petite woman, she is a vulnerable target and is therefore often both verbally and physically harassed by men in public spaces. In this case, headphones are a precautionary measure to prevent further harassment. To quote the author, “The headphones act as a barrier. I look less available and less susceptible.” This usage of headphones also helps to prevent racially motivated harassment against many people of colour.

Distraction can be helpful; listening to cheerful music on a bad day may help dissipate negative feelings. And audiobooks and podcasts can be a quick and efficient way to learn new information and be exposed to new opinions, for topics related to academia and life in general. One KCL student told me that their favourite podcasts were “Arabic podcasts usually revolving around business”. Another KCL student replied with “anything goes, Philosophise This, and @lexie”. This is especially true if you properly focus (or are lucky enough to be in that 2.5% of efficient multitaskers!).

Studies on whether working with music being beneficial or not have been inconclusive. I personally think it is dependent on the type of music you are playing. Listening to music with lyrics and heavy production may be distracting, but classical music, lo-fi, or even white noise could help with concentration. Music could also block out notifications from your phone, which are a key distractor when working.

Ultimately, headphone usage can be beneficial, but only when in moderation (as is with most things). We do not need to be listening to something all the time. So the next time you commute to campus, try leaving your headphones behind.

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