The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

From podcasts to Clubhouse, audio is filling more of our time. For some families, that’s a problem.

Audio content can connect people to strangers and make them feel less alone, but it’s possible to listen too much

(Cindy Lozito for The Washington Post)
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SAN FRANCISCO — The signs are there, if you know to look for them. A single white Apple AirPod dangling out of an ear, maybe a chunk of hair swept over to obscure it. A newfound love of mindless tasks like washing dishes, light gardening or folding laundry. And repeating stock phrases like “mmhmm” and “sure, no problem” to cover for the fact they’re listening to someone else entirely.

Your partner, parent, friend or child might be hooked on audio. They could be on a group Discord app call with 20 of their closest friends or listening to thought leaders in real time on audio-only chat app Clubhouse. Perhaps they’re deep into the latest true-crime podcast or enjoying an audiobook.

With the fall in in-person interactions and blurrier lines among work, home and alone time, record numbers of people have turned to nonmusic audio content during the past year. It can be a welcome mental health break, an attempt to escape the monotony of pandemic life or a way to socialize remotely. The voices can break up endless stretches of quiet or block out inescapable chatter. And after months of working remotely and binge-watching on apps like Netflix to pass the time, some people are getting sick of screens — or perhaps running out of decent things to watch.

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Like its more infamous cousin screen time, a lot of audio time has the potential for good and bad in your life. It all depends on how and when it’s used, and how loud you have the volume turned up. Listening to voices is different from looking at a screen because it’s easier to multitask. And it’s similar in that you can lean on it too much, stopping you from being fully present for the people around you.

Excessive listening can be an escape, but it can also be a coping mechanism, says Judson Brewer, who studies overcoming addiction, bad habits and anxiety. Screen time, Clubhouse or drinking can all distract people from that unpleasant feeling of anxiety, says Brewer, the executive medical director at online health company Sharecare. But the distraction doesn’t fix anxiety, it just feeds it, he says. The problem is still there.

“This is not about setting rules for ourselves,” Brewer said. “Those are all arbitrary things. We can say, ‘Oh, it’s better to not be on a screen for X hours.’ When we look at this from a rule-based perspective, it’s only a matter of time before we break those rules and feel guilty.”

For a while, Mary was glad her husband found a way to blow off steam and have a social life again. The strict pandemic shutdowns in the San Francisco Bay area, where they live and are able to do their tech jobs from home, had made them each other’s primary company for months. Then last year, her husband — a habitual early adopter — started signing on to Clubhouse in the evenings and on weekends, listening in on and eventually hosting rooms.

“It’s when it got excessive I had to step in. I couldn’t tell if he was talking to me or Clubhouse,” said Mary, who is being identified by only her first name because of her concern for her husband’s privacy.

There were red-flag moments, like their young daughter not wanting to go to her dad with questions because he was always talking. Or her wanting to color with him before dinner, when he said he was unavailable. He would be at home physically but not present mentally, said Mary, so the couple sat down and hashed out a plan. He agreed it was an issue and decided to take a 30-day break from the app, deleting Clubhouse from his phone to prove to himself that he could do it. He recently got back on it and is practicing more moderation, but Mary worries it won’t stick.

The popularity of audio outside the more traditional realms of music or radio isn’t new. Podcast listening has been booming for years, offering daily news roundups, casual chitchat or reported narratives that can be listened to at any time. Listeners still turn to apps like Apple Podcasts, Pocket Casts and Spotify to find the latest episodes.

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But here’s what’s new: Listening to audio content is at an all-time high during the pandemic, according to a March report from Edison Research, which tracks the audio industry, and Triton Digital, a digital audio infrastructure firm. Around 176 million teens and adults in the United States now listen to audio online at least once a week, compared with 169 million in 2020.

People are tuning into audio chat apps like Clubhouse or Discord, listening to radio online and even seeking out different types of sound. Audible, which is known for audiobooks, also offers audio of relaxing guided meditations, sound baths and ASMR recordings. The meditation app Calm offers “soundscape meditation” recordings that play sounds of Central Park or the bird calls and soft rain of a Costa Rican jungle.

Podcasts continue to be the most listened to nonmusic audio. Around 80 million Americans are tuning into podcasts every week, a 17 percent increase from 2020, according to Edison and Triton. People were spending nearly twice as much time listening to podcasts on Spotify at the end of 2020 as the year before, pre-pandemic, according to the companies. Of Spotify’s 345 million users, 25 percent now listen to podcasts.

For years, clinical mental health counselor Robert Casares has been assigning his clients, individuals and couples, podcasts instead of reading. He finds the format can make difficult or academic topics more accessible, and it can normalize subjects like mental health by turning them into conversations between real people.

“There’s something intimate, too, about listing to podcasts. A lot of people listen with ear buds and say they feel like they know the host,” said Casares, an assistant professor of counseling at Wake Forest University in North Carolina. “It’s a double-edged sword. What makes it so intimate and an escape or an educational opportunity when you’re alone, is also something that can provide an escape for people when you’re around them.”

Why are people turning to these listening-only options now, when we have high-tech options like Zoom, video calls with elaborate animated filters, and even virtual reality? During the pandemic, something as low-tech as hearing other humans’ voices can fulfill a different kind of need for people who are isolated, all without the anxiety or pressure of having to be seen or even talking back.

“You don’t realize how much you miss just overhearing somebody in an office and on a bus. Just hearing people talk. I don’t hear people talk unless I’m manufacturing it with a podcast,” said Keena Bean, a communications professional in Seattle. “I’m filling my time — what would usually be my human interactions — with a one-way listening stream of someone else’s human interactions.”

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Bean says she listens to podcasts constantly, anytime she’s not reading or working. She lives with her like-minded boyfriend, who also works from home and listens regularly to his own episodes throughout the day. Their audio habits haven’t been a problem in their relationship, but Bean does notice some side effects in other parts of her life.

She can’t take AirPods with her when she goes to the grocery store anymore because she gets too tied up in a podcast, forgets what she’s looking for and takes forever to finish shopping. When she’s with friends in her bubble, she has to stop herself from constantly discussing whatever cheery podcast topic she’s bingeing (most recently: the looming threat of nuclear war). But there are positives, too. Bean now watches very little TV, feels more productive and is better about doing the dishes.

“I don’t know what it is about podcasts, but there’s something about it that doesn’t feel like wasted time. It feels like betterment time, like reading a book,” Bean said.

Some people crave more back and forth. Discord, a social app that is popular with younger users and gamers, has been around since 2015 and lets groups hang out in voice channels, which are like a massive phone call that stretches on for hours. But during the coronavirus pandemic, with social activities put on hold and many schools switching to remote learning, students have turned to Discord to replicate parts of their social life online. They watch movies together, play games and chat for hours about everything or nothing.

Discord had around 140 million users a month by the end of 2020 and said it saw a 50 percent growth in the number of people using voice channels every day during the pandemic.

In Michelle Jimerson Morris’s house, almost everyone has headphones on during the day and into the night. Her husband is listening to podcasts while working on his computer from home, and their two kids are on Discord with friends. Jami, their 16-year old son, was home-schooled before the pandemic, but his Discord use has still shot up over the past year. The biggest difference, he has found, is that there are suddenly so many more people on Discord for him to talk to and play video games with since the pandemic began. Despite their individual tech use, this time has been good for the family, says Morris, who is on a Discord server for fans of the TV show “Supernatural.”

“The pandemic did nothing but bring us closer together, because the kids have the same sense of humor as my husband. They can make a whole night out of Reddit memes and Discord memes, just laughing at them,” Morris said.

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But Clubhouse, which was launched last year, has gotten the most attention in recent months. It’s a social media app that puts people in simple, conference-call-like chat rooms. Typically, a few people are allowed to talk at a time while most of the rest are passive listeners who can raise a virtual hand if they have something to say. The topics are all over the map, but in the United States, there’s a fondness for self-help, bitcoin and business advice rooms. Some of the most popular rooms are hosted in the evening hours, after work and before bed.

Clubhouse, an iPhone-only app, requires an invitation to join, which helped it build hype as a semi-exclusive club. But it has gone more mainstream in recent months. The service has around 10 million people using it every week worldwide, and there are thousands of active rooms happening at any given time, the company shared in February.

For now, Mary and her husband are trying to apply the same kinds of limits they have for screen time to audio time — no Clubhouse during dinner hours or on Saturdays. She says quality time with their daughter is limited, and she is determined to make sure they are present for it. But she has also told her husband she recognizes he has social needs, and she wants him to meet those.

“Let’s figure out a way where you control technology and not the other way around,” she told him.

Mary has started listening to Clubhouse, even joining her husband in some of his audio rooms. But from a different room in their house.