Have you ever had your headphones plugged into your phone or tablet and had a warning appear as you raise the volume? You may want to heed the warning – researchers are finding that our hearing can be affected greatly by listening to our headphones too loudly. It’s a common practice since so many work, exercise, and perform other tasks using portable MP3 players and other music-containing devices. But just what effect can this have on your hearing?

The fact is that you don’t even have to crank the volume up all that high. If you pour music directly into your ears at a moderately loud volume while in a noisy situation for an extended amount of time, you are causing neurophysiological changes that may ultimately affect your ability to discriminate between sounds.

You won’t be able to ascertain whether or not you’ve been affected by this from a regular hearing test as you will still hear a tone in the midst of complete silence. Such headphone use only affects the ability to pick out specific sounds from a cacophony of background sounds. This may lead researchers to try and develop new hearing tests for those who are frequent earbud users.

The way such tests were performed was by using devices that measured brain activity rather than auditory response. Two groups of young people were studied, half of them headphone users, half of them not. The test involved picking up background sounds while watching a movie. The group of headphone users showed less mental reaction to background noise, while both groups tested equally in standard hearing tests, indicating that only the ability to pick out specific sounds within the background of a noisy environment was affected.

What does this research mean for those who use headphones? While there is nothing wrong with using headphones in a quiet environment (say to avoid waking others at night), you are encouraged to avoid cranking up the volume to drown out background noise (for example, at the gym or on public transportation). There are many noise-dampening devices that can block out background noise without the need for other sounds to drown it out – this is a far safer method of coping with noise pollution.