Can Podcasts Cure Loneliness?

An investigation into whether audio technology can make us feel less alone

Lucas Oakeley
9 min readJun 7, 2020


Photo: JGI/Jamie Grill/Getty Images

It’s 5 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon. I’m cutting up a courgette for that Rachel Khoo recipe I’ve been meaning to try for weeks now. It’s a meal-for-one, as per usual. I’ll be eating it alone, as per usual. Except not really. My good friend Adam Buxton will be with me, droning on about mattresses and his dog Rosie in my ear the entire time. In pursuit of some surrogate company via the medium of podcasts, I know I’m not alone at all.

“Sometimes I listen to them [podcasts] with my full attention but most of the time I just like to have it on as sort of a background noise,” says Mariana Alves Fernandes. Mariana is 19 years old and one of the many people around the globe who has found herself self-medicating against bouts of loneliness with podcasts during the global coronavirus outbreak.

“The first week I felt kinda closer to everyone in the whole wide world — ’cause your eyes are glued to the TV screen, constantly listening to what’s happening in your country and the world, constantly texting your close friends about the news, or how your day has been,” Mariana tells me. “But that’s slowly faded. Now that I feel like I’ve seen everything on Netflix and YouTube, I’m kinda struggling with filling my time. Days feel so long and podcasts make quarantine feel less lonely.”

Podcasts are, as you might be aware, having a bit of a moment. With Stitcher reporting that the number of podcasts uploaded to the platform has grown by 129,000% in the last decade, and Joe Rogan’s $100 million deal with Spotify making him potentially the world’s highest paid broadcaster on the planet, it’s hard to deny the impact that the podcast has had on popular culture in the last few years.

Podcasts are ubiquitous, unavoidable, and nearly everyone has got a favorite. Hell, you’ve probably even got a podcast yourself. But there’s something else that’s become just as prominent in 2020: loneliness. Covid-19 is wreaking unprecedented havoc on the physical and mental well-being of all who cross its path, and forcibly separating us from friends and family. That has meant that feelings of fear, anxiety, and loneliness are at an all-time high. Yet, even before quarantine forced us all inside, Brits — in particular–were struggling with record levels of social isolation.

Back in 2018, the BBC went so far as to describe the bouts of loneliness sweeping the nation as an “epidemic,” affirming that more than a quarter of all households in the U.K. contained a single person living alone. That number (roughly 7.7 million) is predicted to increase by another two million within the next 10 years. The negative impact that loneliness has on physical (as well as mental) health is pretty stark, too. Suffering from loneliness is apparently worse than smoking 15 cigarettes a day. Though I’m a little skeptical about how that science works out, I guess that would make me something of a pack-a-day man at the moment.

Longing for any form of human contact I can get, I’ve found myself turning to podcasts as a means of generating some virtual company. Even if my actions are a bit like something out of Spike Jonze’s Her (don’t worry, I haven’t started masturbating to This American Life…yet), I do think podcasts can somewhat simulate the experience of being in a room with all your best mates, with inside jokes and riffs zinging to and fro. “Listening to a podcast kinda makes it feel as if I at least had some sort of social conversation that day,” says Mariana. “It’s like I’m just listening to a friend telling me about their day. It feels more personal and, especially in these times, it helps with feeling less alone.”

Gen Zers like Mariana are particularly acute to internet-induced FOMO and, as a result, tend to be savvier than older age groups at using the internet to combat hard feelings. While I can’t claim to be a member of Gen Z, nor do I have a TikTok account, I’m still only 24. That means (according to a report from Acast) I’m part of the age bracket that has embraced podcasts most openly. What that also means is I’m in the group most at risk of being lonely. A study from the Office of National Statistics found that 16–24 year olds are actually more likely than those over 65 to suffer from loneliness.

An online survey of 55,000 people released in 2018 — known as the BBC Loneliness Experiment’— similarly found that levels of loneliness were highest among that 16–24 cluster. Forty percent of those surveyed in that age range said they either “often” or “very often” felt lonely. These are, I’m saddened to admit, far from isolated bits of research. A recent survey in support of the Samaritans charity found that 64% of Brits have reported feeling lonely in the past year, stating that levels of loneliness rose to a staggering 82% among those aged 25–34. Bleak.

A lot of critics are quick to blame technology for this rise in loneliness among young people. Everything from Fortnite to Facebook has been named as the cause for turning us into social hermits. One report from the University of Pittsburgh even suggests that those who spend over two hours on social media every day are twice as likely to experience feelings of social isolation. I would, however, propose that this is a case of serendipitous correlation as opposed to causation. What studies like those don’t take into account are the individuals who might be using social media more because they feel lonely—rather than vice versa. I, for one, am firmly in the camp that technology can be therapeutic if used correctly.

I’m thankfully not alone in my belief that technology isn’t some villain robbing us of emotional connection. “There’s always been a historical backlash against technology, but nobody has actually done the research,” says Tim Leech, CEO of WaveLength, a charity that uses technology to help alleviate loneliness across the U.K. “Our remit has always been on loneliness and we’ve actually found that linking people with media technology has been very effective in helping them to not feel lonely all the time.”

Longing for any form of human contact I can get, I’ve found myself turning to podcasts as a means of generating some virtual company.

WaveLength works by supplying those in need, such as the homeless and the elderly, with technology like tablets and smartphones to help connect them to the outside world. These methods of communication are more vital than ever, considering the current social climate. A study conducted in conjunction with WaveLength at the University of York in 2016 discovered that — contrary to popular belief — technology provided a sense of comfort and companionship to test subjects and was capable of alleviating their subjective experiences of loneliness. While this study was conducted within a select group of elderly individuals, I don’t see why it can’t resonate with the less silver-haired among us as well.

Annie Irvine, PhD, is a research associate at the University of York’s Department of Language and Linguistic Science who helped conduct the study. “People who took part in the research told us that having the radio or television on in their home could provide a sense of company and companionship, reducing their feelings of loneliness,” writes Irvine over email.

“Some people in our study, who experienced physical or mental health problems, told us that listening to the radio or watching television could distract them from physical pain or difficult emotions. For some people, having the diversion of the radio was especially helpful at night times if they couldn’t sleep.”

With even the radio-mad BBC ditching its iPlayer radio app in favor of podcasting portals like BBC Sounds, it’s easy to see why people like Mariana and myself find podcasts to have a similar soothing effect. Leech agrees that podcasts can be an especially positive influence.

“I think podcasts have a similar comforting effect that radio has,” he tells me. “In fact, I think they’re slightly more flexible, and giving the listener that power of choice is very, very important. I used podcasts myself when I wasn’t sleeping well.”

There truly is a podcast for every mood — including those moments when it feels like your mental carpet is being shat on by the shaggy black spaniel of loneliness. Which is, I suppose, exactly why I’ve been listening to Adam Buxton while whipping up courgette linguine.

But why podcasts and not music? Podcasts offer a unique intimacy and are — believe it or not — capable of engaging your brain’s emotional centers in a direct way. That’s why it often feels like you really know the hosts of your favorite podcasts.

“Just hearing the voice of someone you like is comforting,” says Mariana, “and listening to what goes on in their lives makes them feel more human, and you feel more connected.”

As meaningful as our time with podcasts can be, there are a few notable drawbacks. Spending quality ear-time with a slew of familiar voices may seem like an apt method of curing loneliness but it’s important to remember that those “mates” are just pre-recorded voices in your head — sonic surrogates for the real deal. While a podcast may help alleviate feelings of short-term loneliness, it doesn’t solve the long-term problem. This is mainly because listening to a podcast is itself often an inherently lonely action.

Pre-pandemic, the moments that most of us stole to indulge in podcasts were those in which we were generally in the mood for separation from the outside world: moments during our morning commute, at the gym, or trying to doze off at night. Pummeling a podcast into your eardrums was then — and remains — a typically solo affair.

This, as Martin Webber, professor of Social Work at the University of York, explains, presents an issue to take note of. “Podcasts provide the opportunity for us to immerse ourselves in a subject of interest to us. As distinct from listening to the radio, they allow us to pursue our interests wherever and whenever we wish. It fits with our desire to plug into what interests us but also allows us to, perhaps too easily, zone out from people who we don’t really want to talk to.”

One of the benefits of a podcast or audiobook as opposed to a physical book is the privacy it affords. Read How to Win Friends and Influence People on the train and you’ll likely garner a few rogue glances. Take in a self-help podcast, however, and no one will even know. This privacy brings with it a form of dangerously comforting self-exile.

There’s an irony that podcasts, once an escape from the menial small talk of complete strangers, are now one of the few ways of hearing a friendly voice aside from the one we’ve got rattling inside our own skulls. But can podcasts be a genuinely effective means of tackling loneliness? Or are they simply a coping mechanism — another crutch offered by an increasingly too-digital society? Professor Webber suggests they do have positive potential, but there’s a catch.

“I think [listening to a podcast] would need to be combined with something else to be effective,” he says. “For example, there is a growing evidence base for cognitive behavioral therapy delivered online, but this is only an effective therapy if you do homework and other tasks. Just listening to something in a passive way may not be as effective as using it in an active way to make a difference in your life. Therefore, I think podcasts have the potential to be an effective form of therapy if they have a particular purpose and guide the listener to do things in their daily lives.”

In that view, podcasts can be useful — though only if you’ve got the gusto to act on those impulses and learn from the lessons they preach. A podcast cannot and should not replace a therapist or a trained mental health professional; however, there’s no denying they’re a hell of a lot more accessible. And — if you’re willing to listen to, and take action from, the help they provide — they might be able to help you exit an emotional rut.



Lucas Oakeley

Here to make waves. Not big ones, mind. The kind that nicely lap at your ankles.