I love my Apple Watch. It not only helps me tell the time, it also keeps me connected to the people that I love by alerting me to texts and calls that I might otherwise miss when I don’t hear my phone. It can remind me of upcoming appointments and to stand up every hour to get some exercise. With the recent launch of WatchOS 6, it has a new trick — protecting my hearing.
The newly launched Noise app measures the environmental sounds around you and alerts you when things get dangerously loud. I often pull up a decibel reader app on my phone to measure noise when the background buzz gets to be too much, but with this app — it happens automatically. It doesn’t record or save the sounds, but it does keep the measurement levels, allowing me to revisit my exposure over the past day or week or month via the Health app on my phone. Pretty cool.
Noise App Alerts You To Loud Sounds
My hearing loss makes me sensitive to loud sounds so I added the Noise app to my Apple Watch face for easy access. A simple glance at my wrist tells me the ambient environmental sound levels. It has been funny (or maybe sad) to walk down the streets of NYC where I live and see the green circle indicating OK noise levels turn to yellow as a truck rumbles by or a taxi’s breaks squeal.
The app constantly scans environmental noise (unless you turn this off) but only sends you a warning notification when the average sound level over 3 minutes reaches or exceeds a level of your choosing. You can set this level as Off or to any 5 decibel interval between 80 and 100. For reference, the safe exposure time is listed under each choice. For example, under 90 decibels it says, “Limit: 30 min/day.” That seemed high to me.
Below you can see the readout from a recent concert I attended at Radio City Hall. I wore my noise-cancelling headphones of course! The display shows the decibel range during each 2 minute gray bar. The blue shaded bars indicate the times my watch alerted me to problematic noise per the settings described above. As concerts go — a pretty tame one, but still not safe without hearing protection.
Warnings Of “Temporary” Hearing Loss Misleading?
Exploring the app fully, I found more information, but some of it seemed misleading. For example, a more detailed explanation of 90 dB states, “Around 30 minutes a day at this level can cause temporary hearing loss. The weekly limit at this level is 4 hours.” The word temporary is used in all descriptions up through 100 dB.
While there is some evidence that a temporary threshold shift can occur after exposure to loud sounds or after a concert, there is also research that shows while the initial effects may seem “temporary,” the damage is actually permanent. An audiologist I contacted via email confirmed, “Any exceedance of the recommended daily noise dosages can result in PERMANENT hearing loss.”
If you dig deeper into the Health app on the iPhone, the literature states that long-term repeated exposure to loud sounds can cause permanent hearing loss, but I worry that leading with temporary does not set the right tone.
While I applaud Apple for highlighting the importance of protecting your hearing when things get loud, if the Noise app is to truly help prevent hearing loss, it cannot sugarcoat the information. Downplaying the permanent damage that can result from noise exposure provides easy rationalizations and ready-made excuses that people can use to ignore the noise alerts they do receive.
I hope Apple will consider updating the language used to more accurately reflect the permanent nature of unsafe noise exposure. You can share your thoughts on this topic with Apple by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Readers, would you like to be automatically notified when noise levels are unsafe?