When schools, classes, private lessons, and meetings for work all went online just about a year ago, whether it was Zoom, Skype, FaceTime, or some other platform, I think “Zoom anxiety” was perhaps our first reaction to the changes we had to adjust to.
Because laggy connections, getting our camera and audio to work, trying to figure out how to use a second camera for lessons, fiddling around with advanced settings to make music sound a little better, and learning how to teach and learn and engage with others through videoconferencing overnight made for a pretty stressful time.
At some point though, I think we began to adjust and get more comfortable…and then the term “Zoom fatigue” began to appear. Which refers to the tiredness, exhaustion, or feelings of burnout that many have described experiencing after video calls.
So…is this really a thing? And if so, what is it about staring at a screen of faces in tiny rectangles that causes us to be so fatigued? And is there anything we can do to make this less exhausting?
Researchers are only just beginning to look at this phenomenon, so there isn’t a ton of data yet – but a theoretical paper did come out recently which not only proposed four reasons for why “Zoom fatigue” happens, but offers a couple suggestions on how to make a long day of video chatting a little less draining too.
Jeremy Bailenson is a cognitive psychologist who studies the psychology of virtual and augmented reality, and is the founder and director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab.
Drawing from research in related areas, he recently published a paper (Bailenson, 2021) suggesting that there are four factors that might explain Zoom fatigue: eye gaze, cognitive load, self-evaluation, and physical constraints.
You know how direct eye contact can be kind of uncomfortable? Especially if it’s too direct, and goes on for too long?
Bailenson references a 1965 study (Argyle & Dean), which found that there seems to be a relationship between eye contact and physical proximity. Where the closer someone is to you, the less eye contact you tend to make.
It’s that awkward elevator (or crowded bus or subway) effect. Where you tend to compensate for having to stand so unnaturally close to other people by looking down and minimizing eye contact. Because making and maintaining heavy eye contact in situations like this feels pretty weird and uncomfortable.
But in online video calls, the face staring back at us on our screen often appears to be “closer” to us than it would be in real life. Kind of like having to engage with a ''close talker'' .
So it depends on the size of your screen, and the size of your Zoom/Skype/FaceTime/etc. window, but if you take a ruler and measure how big the face is that’s staring back at you on your laptop, you’ll probably find that in order for someone’s face to appear that size in the real world, you’d have to be pretty darn close to them.
On Bailenson’s laptop, for instance, he found that a person’s face was about 13cm (~5 inches) from top to bottom. Which may not seem all that large, but if you were to take a ruler and measure how big someone’s head looks to you in real life, you’d have to get a lot closer to them than you’d think. To be specific, your faces would only be 50cm (1 foot, 8 inches) away from each other.
Which is much closer than you’d typically be to someone who isn’t a close family member or loved one. Bailenson cites some work on personal space (Hall, 1966) for instance, which found that for most of us, space of less than 60cm (~2 ft) would be considered “intimate.”
Eye gaze in group settings
And even in group chats, the sizes of the faces on the screen are often still bigger than they’d be in a real-life classroom or conference room.
Plus, in a normal classroom or meeting setting, unless you’re the speaker, you typically just see the backs or sides of everyone’s heads. But in a group video chat, we see a bunch of other people staring back at us. And even though they may not actually be looking at us, it can feel like all eyes are on us.
And then there’s cognitive load. Or the idea that communicating via video chat takes more work.
If you’re speaking, audio and video can be laggy, so you may have to wait a few seconds to see what the participants’ reactions to your comment might be. Which makes “reading the room” more challenging.
You also have to worry about your lighting, being centered in the camera, and remembering to look at the webcam rather than the screen when talking. Bailenson even cites a study (Croes et al., 2019) which found that we tend to speak 15% louder when video chatting than in normal life too (although in the case of my son, I swear it’s more like 150% louder).
Furthermore, we only see people from the shoulders up, so we miss all the normal hand gestures and body language that would typically help with communication.
So in many ways, we’re basically having to work harder to stay engaged and connected and communicate effectively – on both the sending and receiving end.
Bailenson also notes that the default setting of most video chat software is for us to see ourselves as well as the other people in a chat. Which he says is a little like walking around all day with a mirror in our face.
Which apparently makes us more likely to engage in self-evaluation (Duval & Wicklund, 1972), adding even more stress to the experience.
And then there are the physical constraints.
In a video call, you have to maintain a certain distance from the screen, make sure you stay in the frame, and you may have headphones on which restricts your movement even further… All of which leaves us more physically constrained than in a regular classroom setting or meeting, where you can lean back, turn around, and move around a bit more, without other people noticing quite so much.
So…given all of this, is there anything we can do to reduce video chat fatigue?
What can we do?
Bailenson offers a couple suggestions.
1: Turn off video?
Regarding eye gaze and cognitive load, he suggests asking yourself if a video call is really necessary, or if a phone call might even be a little better. And perhaps experimenting with audio-only meetings on occasion, so you’re free to move around and not worry so much about all of the visual issues we discussed above.
Indeed, I think this could work in certain contexts – and maybe this is partly why some folks naturally turn their video off – but there are other settings where this may not be so practical.
For instance, in teaching contexts – at least for me – the visual feedback I get from students is super valuable, and helps me know if I need to clarify something, slow down a bit, skip ahead to a different topic, try an activity, tell a story, etc., etc. I taught a couple classes in which everyone’s videos were turned off, and I have to say that I had a really tough time, as it kind of feels like you’re just talking to yourself…
2: Hide self-view
I was pretty intrigued by this suggestion, and tried it out this week. I really liked it – and found it much more freeing to just engage in the class, and not think about myself, my eye contact, lighting, or how I was appearing on camera.
I didn’t even know this was a thing you could do, but if you want to experiment with this in Zoom, here’s a super short video demonstrating how to turn off your self-view, so you only see the other person (or people) on the call, but they continue to see you (the video makes the good point that this might be worth teaching to your students, so they are less self-conscious about how they appear in calls): Zoom Tip: Hide Self View
How does your Zoom fatigue compare to others?
If you’d like to see how bad your Zoom fatigue might be, and add to the ongoing research that Bailenson and his colleagues are doing on this at Stanford, you can take the 15-item Zoom Exhaustion & Fatigue Scale here: Zoom Exhaustion & Fatigue Scale
Argyle, M., & Dean, J. (1965). Eye-Contact, Distance and Affiliation. Sociometry, 28(3), 289. https://doi.org/10.2307/2786027
Bailenson, J. N. (2021). Nonverbal overload: A theoretical argument for the causes of Zoom fatigue. Technology, Mind, and Behavior, 2(1). https://doi.org/10.1037/tmb0000030
Croes, E. A. J., Antheunis, M. L., Schouten, A. P., & Krahmer, E. J. (2018). Social attraction in video-mediated communication: The role of nonverbal affiliative behavior. Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, 36(4), 1210–1232. https://doi.org/10.1177/0265407518757382
Duval, S., & Wicklund, R. A. (1972). A theory of objective self awareness (Social psychology). Academic Press.
Hall, E. T. (1990). The Hidden Dimension (Anchor Books a Doubleday Anchor Book) (First Paperback Edition). Anchor.