The nonstop podcast listeners are on to something

For some people, podcasts offer constant companionship. Is around-the-clock audio a rude habit or a neurological necessity?

A collage of a person listening to a podcast.
(Illustration by Najeebah Al-Ghadban for The Washington Post)
8 min

Kyra Pellant doesn’t like silence. So she banished it from her life.

The 29-year-old in Los Angeles wakes up at 6 a.m., pops in her AirPods and starts listening to podcasts. She listens to shows about wellness or true crime while she commutes and works her day job as a marketer. Then she heads to her second gig as a workout instructor, podcasts playing all the while. She listens while she cooks and winds down for the night, and finally she falls asleep — with a podcast playing.

Pellant says the voices help her focus. They also fill a social need — ever since the pandemic, she’s spent less time with people. And working multiple jobs leaves little time for hanging with friends.

“I feel like I’m kind of making up for that lack of socialization with podcasts,” she said. “This is so sad, but my favorite podcasters, I see them as, like, friends.”

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Pellant’s penchant for podcasts puts her in a unique category of media consumers — those who rarely stop. Plenty of us know the feeling of flipping on the TV or opening Instagram to jolt our attention or calm our nerves. Some people take this a step further, using background media like podcasts, YouTube videos or TikTok’s For You page to focus their minds or manage their emotions all day long. Some say amid what authorities are calling a national loneliness crisis, podcasts take the place of casual chatter with friends, or at least mimic the feeling.

Marathon media consumers aren’t anything new — you might have an aunt who leaves network news droning in the background or a neighbor who blasts all-day yacht rock in his garage. But technological advances such as discreet ear buds and a never-ending stream of audio and video content are making it easier to bring background noise with us wherever we go. To outsiders it might be a rude or confusing habit. For the all-day listeners, however, the practice could be a godsend for focus or a salve for social isolation.

“I like listening to humans talk,” Pellant said. “It reminds me we’re all connected.”

The friends in your ear

Constant audio helps some people stay on task. For others, the distraction is the point.

Praise Tolbert, a full-time mom in Florida, uses podcasts to combat intrusive thoughts, a difficult symptom of her bipolar disorder, the 26-year-old said. She leaves one AirPod in her ear all day long — while she’s eating, taking care of her son or hanging out in a group — and listens to a podcast called “The Judgies,” where three friends read scandalous stories they source from fans or Reddit. At night, she plays the podcast out loud on her phone while she sleeps.

The content of the podcast isn’t meant to be therapeutic. But the sound of the hosts’ happy chatter helps Tolbert stay grounded when her thoughts take her someplace scary, she said.

“Without my podcast and AirPod, my life would probably be much less happy,” Tolbert said. “It's really hard to control what your mind goes to, and having that crutch of positive things and funny people playing in my ear all the time really helps with that.”

It’s something Erika Kleckner, one of the hosts of “The Judgies,” hears all the time. Kleckner, her husband, Christian, and their best friend Josh frequently interact with listeners on YouTube, TikTok and Discord. Audience members talk to them less like content creators and more like buddies, they said.

That’s the biggest feedback we get: We help with people feeling lonely, or it just feels like they’re hanging out with their friends,” Kleckner said.

Many online creators struggle with fans’ parasocial relationships, or the one-sided dynamic between posters and followers. “The Judgies” said most of their fan interactions are positive, save for the occasional awkward moment when listeners write in asking for personal advice. They’d like to help, they said, but at the end of the day they’re just strangers on the internet.

“Since covid restrictions have lightened up, we get it a lot less. Maybe it was a loneliness thing,” Kleckner said.

Background noise helps you focus. Unless it doesn’t.

The same background noise one person finds distracting could be the key to concentration for another. The reason lies in each person’s brain.

“Some people need a bit of extra stimulation,” said Sahar Yousef, a neuroscientist at University of California at Berkeley, who specializes in productivity. “And everyone has to figure out what works for them.”

To pay attention and do a good job, our brains have to thread a needle: Too little arousal, and our minds wander from the task. Too much arousal, and we’ll spiral into overwhelm. Think about drinking one cup of coffee before a meeting versus four cups.

(Video: The Washington Post)

Ideally, the task at hand is interesting or challenging enough to stimulate our brains into paying attention. But often, boring or repetitive tasks fail to sufficiently arouse our brains, and our minds go rogue.

Some brains don’t release enough arousal hormones in response to tasks, which leaves their owners feeling distracted or unmotivated. That’s where some extra stimulation — like a fidget spinner, bouncy chair or background noise — can make a difference.

Lindsay Fleming, a therapist who works with young people with attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), said she frequently recommends background noise to her clients and their families as a way to encourage focus when it doesn’t come naturally. Podcasts, she said, give clients something to pay attention to in the background when they’re presented with tasks that don’t excite them.

Different sources of background noise provide different levels of stimulation. Listening to a podcast probably requires more cognitive effort than listening to music. Watching an unfamiliar TV show is more taxing than re-watching an old favorite. Fleming advises clients to experiment with different sources of noise and see what works best.

“It’s not a one-size-fits-all, and it’s a lot of trial and error of noticing when you feel good, getting to know your body and brain and being able to identify what you need when,” she said.

When Fleming suggests adding noise during homework or classwork, some parents push back. Cognitive differences like ADHD run in families, and it can be tough for parents to see their child getting accommodations rather than learning to blend in — especially if the parent grew up hiding their differences, said Christina Crowe, a therapist who works with adults with ADHD.

Not all teachers get it, either. Isn’t the background noise prohibiting the student from learning to focus the traditional way, some ask? Fleming said she reminds them the student has probably been trying for years to learn in silence, and struggling.

The same strategies work for adults, including the millions estimated to have undiagnosed ADHD or another cognitive difference, Crowe said.

Think about the whole ‘open office’ atmosphere,” she said. “Some people like it, but for a lot of people it’s a nightmare. So they walk into work and they put in the ear buds.”

Can sustained background noise be bad for you?

Background noise from podcasts or shows helps people concentrate, manage their emotions or ward off loneliness. But is it a bad idea to listen around-the-clock?

Concerns over kids using iPhones and teens scrolling social media may lead us to see all digital media as a source of brain rot. But studies linking digital media consumption to shortening attention spans or poor mental health are tricky to evaluate, Berkeley’s Yousef said.

It’s nearly impossible to set up a study that shows a causal link between digital media and attention (parents would have to volunteer their children for long periods of time with tight restrictions, Yousef noted). So instead, scientists make educated guesses, and those guesses sometimes miss the forest for the trees. Sure, 10 minutes of using a smartphone might make someone feel worse, but that information doesn’t help us unless we also know what they were doing and why, she said.

As for background noise, the science is split. Some studies find it helpful for focus and performance. Others find it detrimental. The lack of consensus is probably because of the diversity of the tasks in the studies and of subjects’ brains, Yousef said.

What matters is that what you’re doing is helpful to you, experts said. If you’re struggling to focus, try adding background sound. Start with white noise or instrumental music. If you need more, experiment with lyrical music, podcasts or shows. You can use different audio for different situations, like a suspenseful podcast while you answer emails and a sitcom rerun for falling asleep.

Ideally, keep a line of communication with your loved ones about the background sound. Tolbert, who listens to podcasts to manage intrusive thoughts, talks openly with her 3-year-old about the ever-present AirPod.

“I explain to him like, ‘This is just helpful for me. It’s my podcast,’” she said. “He just accepts it. He’s never questioned it. Sometimes he even listens too.”

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