Video conferencing software has undergone an explosion of use since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Something that had previously been used only in high-flying finance companies and TV news studios suddenly, thanks to lockdown and travel restrictions, became almost a normal tool of everyday life.
But while the technology has allowed office workers to stay at home, and helped families keep in touch with their loved ones near and far, there is a downside. Zooming – the word has taken on a generic meaning, like Googling – can really get you down.
Professor Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab and professor of communications at Stanford University in the US, this week published the first peer-reviewed study on the effects of Zoom and its counterparts, and he reveals four ways in which video-conferencing is bad for your health and causing what he calls ‘Zoom fatigue’.
He also offers suggestions on how to alleviate the problems.
1. Too much close-up eye contact is exhausting.
In making video contact with others, we are making sustained eye contact for longer than would be normal in real conversation, with the possible exception of star-crossed lovers. In addition, the size of your correspondent’s face is not natural, which intensifies the regard.
And in a meeting with several participants, we have the feeling of sitting there being stared at constantly by everyone else, even when we have not a word to say.
“Social anxiety at public speaking is one of the biggest phobias that exist in our population,” Bailenson said. “When you’re standing up there and everybody’s staring at you, that’s a stressful experience.”
Finally, prolonged contact with someone whose face is up close usually leads to one of two outcomes – intimacy or conflict – neither of which would meet with the approval of HR.
Solution: Take Zoom out of full-screen and reduce the size of the monitor to reduce face-size.
2. Staring at your own image in unnatural.
Some video platforms offer you, as well as a grid of the faces of your interlocutors, a square showing your own face, and that is not normal.
“In the real world, if somebody was following you around with a mirror constantly – so that while you were talking to people, making decisions, giving feedback, getting feedback, you were seeing yourself in a mirror – that would just be crazy. No one would ever consider that,” Bailenson said.
Also, he explained, studies have shown that people looking at themselves in a mirror tend to be more critical of themselves, and not only for the bed-hair.
Solution: Once you’ve established your face is framed correctly, turn off self-view with a right click on your frame.
3. Video chats reduce mobility.
Normally, talking to someone, whether in the flesh or on the phone, allows you some sort of movement, if only to get up and walk around. But while the communications capabilities of platforms like Zoom would still work if you were walking around, the face-forward looking at the screen had become the standard view people expect to see.
“There’s a growing research now that says when people are moving, they’re performing better cognitively,” Bailenson said.
Solution: Allow meeting participants to turn off the screen while still taking part, or even take a full time-out.
4. Having a video chat is simply a lot more work for the brain.
Humans have learned throughout their history to send and interpret non-verbal signals from one to another, and for the most part we do so instinctively. In the early days of the internet, text communications on bulletin boards revealed the problem of communicating those subtleties in text. Now, video communication is forcing us to think constantly about how to communicate a mood, sarcasm, a quip or a sympathetic word to someone who is not only not in the room, but may not even be on the same continent.
“You’ve got to make sure that your head is framed within the centre of the video,” Bailenson said.
“If you want to show someone that you are agreeing with them, you have to do an exaggerated nod or put your thumbs up. That adds cognitive load as you’re using mental calories in order to communicate.”
Solution: Give yourself an audio-only break and turn away from the screen.
“So that for a few minutes you are not smothered with gestures that are perceptually realistic but socially meaningless.”