Wearing headphones is like chewing gum: Most people carry them in their pockets or purses, some claim they’re bad for you, and many find them annoying and disrespectful. America’s infatuation with headphones reflects a fascinating new desire shared by many citizens to avoid boredom, inconveniences, and undesirable social interactions. The saying “headphones in, world out” has gained popularity among young people recently, and unfortunately for the headphone-loving portion of our population, “world out” is not a great policy for a thoughtful society. The widespread use of headphones in public environments, although comforting to some, is incredibly detrimental to users because it limits intellectual growth and renders potentially meaningful interactions with strangers impossible. Though filling one’s head with mind-numbing sound may seem harmless, society’s dependence on technology is increasing mindlessness, decreasing our tolerance for boredom, and creating a dwindling regard for real human interaction.
Young people are often criticized for their dependence on technology. Yet time on the Internet can actually be beneficial by making us more socially conscious, exposing us to new and interesting individuals, and helping us rekindle and maintain friendships. Aimless phone usage, however, should remain an activity for when we are alone and have no more valuable use for our time. Scrolling through endless social media feeds or listening to music in public directly limits our social interactions.
Headphones are a particularly nasty contributor to this stifling behavior. In fact, many headphone users wear earbuds specifically to avoid talking to other people. To some, they may simply provide a distraction from boredom. Although you may make excuses for numbly walking through life with a constant stream of music pumping into your brain, frequent headphone users are missing out on valuable experiences. For example, they face fewer social challenges simply because they have the option to avoid arguments, altercations, and even casual rudeness. Though that sounds like a good thing, we do not grow by avoiding discomfort. Popping in earbuds when faced with social awkwardness teaches us to be passive, and that can be detrimental because it does not allow us to establish ourselves through confrontation.
Headphones can also cause us to miss out on positive interactions with strangers. In The New York Times article “My Headphones, My Self,” writer Jacob Bernstein describes a sweet interaction between a young woman and an older woman on a train that would not have occurred had the younger remembered her headphones that day. A similar scenario is discussed in the LA Times op-ed “Throw Away Your Earbuds, Boredom Is Good” by Roscrans Baldwin. After giving up headphones cold turkey, he becomes more attuned to others during his daily routine. He laughs at ridiculous overheard discussions and even enjoys his morning jog without a soundtrack, a feat thought impossible by many. I myself decided to ditch the headphones while snowboarding recently and found my ability to listen and observe the mountains and trees incredibly rejuvenating. I also made polite and entertaining conversation with other skiers on the chairlifts. I met people from Argentina, Texas, Utah, and Chicago, and those brief exchanges left me feeling joyful for the rest of the day. These positive experiences familiarize us with our fellow humans, and that can counter the cynicism exhibited by many young people. Becoming familiar with people outside your chosen group can open your eyes to other walks of life and their unique experiences. The value of that enlightenment is immeasurable.
Young people think they’re good communicators. However, that’s not measured in Snapchat streaks or Facebook friends. Real communication is the basis of humanity. Will the quality of our communication soon depend solely on the strength of our Wi-Fi? We need real human interactions in our daily lives. This summer, don’t forget to take off your headphones and plug yourself in to life.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.