Why the American Medical Association Wants to Put Warning Labels on Tech

Physicians want to tell us how to use our headphones. And we should probably listen.

Whether we’re out walking, biking, or running, we’ve almost always got headphones in our ears. Unfortunately, because it can be so distracting, a lot of us are getting into serious accidents. The American Medical Association thinks it’s time to intervene: During their annual meeting last week, they voted to support putting warning labels on devices that require headphones, advising users about the potential dangers. This is relatively new territory for physicians, but they’re forging ahead.

Currently, their major concern is that having headphones in both ears while engaging in activities outside is not only distracting but also detrimental to our ability to hear things — important things, like honking cars, emergency alarms, and railroad crossing horns — coming toward us. Still, headphones make an odd candidate for a warning label. After all, they’re not innately dangerous (as opposed to, say, a carton of cigarettes). What’s hazardous is the way people use them. What’s hazardous, really, is us.

Do we really need to be told how to use them?

Other physicians have dabbled in similar areas in the past: The American Pediatric Association has its own set of guidelines for how long kids should spend in front of a TV or computer screen, and, earlier this year, the City Council of Berkeley, California, tried to get labels on cell phones warning against brain cancer (this was shut down quickly as no conclusive evidence is available). Still, this is the first time the AMA has moved to intervene in tech use in such a direct way.

There’s going to be a lot more to regulate as innovation moves toward increasingly personal technology. As with the issue of cell phone use and the incidence of cancer, the arrival of wearable tech — the Apple Watch, Google Glass, and electronic implants — will come with a whole new set of medical concerns. We can hardly handle headphones now; what will we do when Google’s self-driving cars hit the road?

(Ed. note: We looked around for a humorous YouTube clip to include in this post — as one does — but couldn’t find one. People are dying.)

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