The Great Headphone Debate


Community is one of the most important aspects of modern climbing gyms. Friendships are nurtured, marriage proposal are made, and complete strangers feel comfortable cheering each other on, asking for beta, and chatting about their favorite climbs. So what should gyms do about technology that comes in the way of this human connection?

Recently, Pacific Edge Climbing Gym in Santa Cruz, CA ran headlong into this issue while deciding whether or not to implement a ban on headphones/earbuds in the bouldering area (rope climbers were already precluded from using them). With the increased use of smartphones over the last few years, they had concerns that their use might negatively impact the sense of community at the gym; they also worried that boulderers listening to music with earbuds would not be adequately aware of their surroundings.

They aren’t the only ones worried that technology is hurting interpersonal interaction. A 2014 study titled ‘iPod use and the perception of social introversion’, published in the journal Leisure Studies, found that headphone users were “significantly less likely to engage in social behaviors such as making eye contact, saying hello and acknowledging a person walking past them.” The devices not only made the wearer more isolated, the headphones seemed to broadcast a signal that they did not want to interact, creating a social barrier.

Banning the use of earbuds in all climbing areas was in line with Pacific Edge’s policy of encouraging and supporting positive human interactions. They had already decided to buck the trend of offering public wifi to their customers in an effort to promote community. The owners made this decision after observing that people engaged with their phones were less engaged with each other.

So after much discussion management planned to change the gym’s rules around earbuds.

“We put up a two week notice of a policy change that there would be no phones/media devices in climbing areas,” Mike Kittredge, Co-Manager at Pacific Edge, told CBJ in an email interview.

The rule change did not go over well.

“We quickly got push back from our membership. Most folks understood that no phones should be allowed in the roped areas for obvious reasons, but folks had some valid points as to why if they were aware of climbers, [they should] be allowed to have them in the bouldering area,” said Kittredge.

Photo: Pacific Edge
Photo: Pacific Edge

Take Two

Rather than push forward with the change, Pacific Edge’s management team decided to survey their members about the issue. This would not only provide helpful information about their members, but would help them make a more informed policy decision. “We realized that getting input from our members and then responding accordingly to that input would continue to reinforce and/or build a sense of ownership for our members,” Kittredge explained.

The survey revealed that while only 31% of those surveyed climbed with earbuds, the majority of people (57%) felt that people who boulder with them did not pose a safety risk to themselves or other boulderers and most (57%) felt that their use had “no effect on the sense of community amongst boulderers.”

Those that used headphones felt that they were a good tool to help them work out. “Music can get me hyped to climb hard and not lose focus,” one respondent said. Even those that didn’t wear headphones felt they should be allowed. “It won’t affect me if you ban them, but I prefer to be in a community that doesn’t limit personal freedom,” another said.

The gym also reached out to four other climbing gyms (Hangar 18, The Rock Spot, City Beach and The Studio) to ask them about their policies; All of them allowed headphones in the bouldering areas. Based on the feedback they received from the other gyms and the results of their customer survey, management decided to continue allowing headphones in the bouldering area, as long as they were used responsibly. “It was clear, at least by the responses that phones/earbuds were not negatively impact the ‘sense of community’ here at Pacific Edge,” Kittredge said.

They informed members of the revised policy, which allowed the use of headphones in the bouldering area as long as customers “keep the music at such a level that they can still be communicated with by other climbers and remain aware of their surroundings at all times.” They also educated staff to monitor customers with earbuds and to intervene if the headphones appeared to be causing a risk. Education would be the first line of defense, but if customers did not comply they would be asked to remove their headphones.

Even though Pacific Edge decided not to ban the use of headphones, the process of talking about the issue seems to have made the climbers at their gym more aware of the negative impacts they can have. One of the respondents to the gym’s survey stated, “I do [use headphones], but now that I think about it, using headphones probably limits my awareness of climbers around me, particularly kids. Regardless of a rule change, I’ll stop.”