Feb 2018 ABC online
David McAlpine is Professor of Hearing, Language and the Brain and Director of Hearing Research at Macquarie University's Australian Hearing Hub. Bill Thompson is Distinguished Professor of Psychology and Chief Investigator in the ARC Centre of Excellence in Cognition and its Disorders at Macquarie University. Dr Megan Gilliver is Project Leader and researcher at National Acoustics Laboratories (NAL) at Macquarie University
You step onto a crowded train and grab a spare seat to relax for your journey home, only to be met with Radiohead's Kid A album reverberating out of someone else's headphones, while the person behind you argues with their partner about who is making dinner tonight … where's the digital etiquette? Short of biting someone's ear off for this bad behaviour — literally, a passenger in London recently bit another passenger's ear because his friend was talking loudly on the phone — it's no wonder we are increasingly annoyed by the bad manners of technology users. In fact, the noise that passengers face while commuting can not only have impacts on their psycho-social health, it can also contribute to their cumulative noise exposure and hearing loss as well.
We may only just be learning how to practise digital manners in Australia, but there is a good chance that these practices may well be enacted more stringently in the future — such as clear notices reminding train passengers in regions of Japan to refrain from talking on the phone.
A 2015 report by the US-based Pew Research Centre, found that around 90 per cent of the 18-29 age group is okay with others using their mobile phones while on public transport, while older age groups were significantly less likely to appreciate this behaviour, with only 54 per cent of the over-65 age group feeling the same way.
Previous studies have also reported that bystanders overhearing a mobile phone conversation often experience feelings of embarrassment over their forced eavesdropping, as well as considering it rude.
Eavesdropping is awkward for everyone involved
We might think that we can ignore the sounds around us, but research conducted at Macquarie University suggests that our emotional states are highly attuned to the sounds that we hear in our environment. Intrusive music — whether it is being played directly through someone's digital device, or so loudly through headphones it can be heard by those nearby — can have an array of emotional consequences for listeners, including increased aggression, irritability and an inability to concentrate. If an individual overhearing distracting music is involved in an important task — for example, decision-making during a business call, or as a staff member in the transit system who needs to have situational awareness to monitor the safety of passengers, it can be difficult for them to stay focussed. The resulting changes in mood brought on by intrusive music can also cause interpersonal conflict, which can happen immediately or after a delay, meaning the effects of music on mood can linger well beyond the exposure phase and go on to influence the rest of your day.
We're spending longer in noisy public spaces than ever before
Noise pollution in commuter spaces is another issue that those with a lack of digital manners escalate. Recently, researchers at Macquarie University's Australian Hearing Hub have been investigating hidden hearing loss, where individuals — some only in their 20s and 30s — find it difficult to follow conversations in areas with lots of background conversation, with mounting evidence indicating that noise exposure is to blame for this condition. Coupled with the fact that currently one in six Australians have some form of hearing loss, with this number estimated to increase to one in four by 2050, it is evident that the prevalence of noise-induced hearing loss is increasing in younger generations. This increase can be attributed in part to modern lifestyle practices where social spaces and practices, such as cafes and restaurants, music festivals, visiting sporting events and commuting via public transport, are becoming louder and the time spent in them, longer. Having an awareness of noise load, how not to add to it, and how to protect your hearing, are becoming increasingly important practices in public spaces for the health and safety of all.
Escaping the noise made by digitally-insensitive bystanders by using your own personal listening device probably won't help your own hearing either, particularly due to the fact that you are likely to turn up the volume in an effort to drown out the background noise. Another recent study by researchers in the National Acoustics Laboratories within Macquarie University's Australian Hearing Hub found that, on average, only 7.5 per cent of headphone listening time by the study's 4,185 Australian participants was undertaken using noise-cancelling devices, indicating that a majority of listeners are actually also receiving additional background noise from their surroundings.
The study also found that 10 per cent of its participants exceeded the workplace exposure standard for noise — 85 decibels for eight hours — when listening through their headphones, and that around 16 per cent of personal device listening time was done by the study participants while they were commuting. When these sound levels are combined with the decibels produced in and around public transport, the resulting cumulative noise levels become more alarming. Those from common transport systems combined with passenger noise left some subway platforms reaching sound levels as high as 102.1 decibels, which is equivalent to a jet flyover at 1000 feet (103 dB) and capable of causing noise-induced hearing loss in daily commuters if experienced for more than 15 minutes daily.
Passenger noise plus transport noise can reach sound levels equivalent to a jet flyover
So, practice some digital manners on your commute. Adding to the noise around you in noisy public places, by speaking raucously on your phone to the distraction of others or blaring your music loudly, doesn't help other passengers' emotional health during and after their commute.
Having a soft conversation on your phone is much better for everyone, and listening quietly to music through your headphones will ensure that you won't be damaging your own hearing and adding to the noise load of everyone else. Investing in a good pair of noise-cancelling headphones or ear plugs can also help to reduce noise-induced hearing loss from extraneous sound levels in loud public places. By minding our collective digital manners, we will all have a better ride to work and keep our hearing while doing it.