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20th March 2021

Zzzoom Fatigue: Why is online life so draining?

Emma Hattersley reviews the psychological explanations for our video-software related exhaustion
Zzzoom Fatigue: Why is online life so draining?
mohamed_hassan @Pixabay

As we approach a year of sudying from home, it can be hard to recall a time before Zoom. The software – mostly unknown prior to lockdown – has now become an integral part of daily life.

Between lectures, society events, family chats and more, we are spending hours daily on video chats. Normally however, we would have still spent that time studying or interacting with others. So why does doing it online feel so much more draining?

In a study published by the journal ‘Technology, Mind and Behaviour’, Stanford researcher Jeremy Bailenson has laid out four possible scientific explanations for this so-called ‘Zoom-fatigue:

1. Eye Contact

When we interact with people in person, we balance two personality traits: eye contact, and person-to-person distance.

Typically, research has shown that standing anywhere closer than about 60cm is reserved for people we know and trust. Where keeping this distance isn’t possible, we tend to avoid eye contact to reduce the level of awkwardness.

Bailenson uses the example of a lift to illustrate his point. I don’t know about you, but if someone forced to stand right next to me in a busy lift constantly looked me in the eye, I would feel more than a little uncomfortable.

In informal measurements, Bailenson calculated that for his own laptop screen, a person’s face was about 13 cm top to bottom. In-person, this corresponds to an estimated distance of about 50 cm-well inside the so-called ‘intimate’ inter-personal zone.

In addition, watching someone stare at their screen on your own screen simulates eye contact, and on average, we stare at our screen for far longer than we would maintain in-person eye contact.

This means that on a video call, we spend hours having what our brain perceives as intimate, intense conversations, sometimes with complete strangers. No wonder we’re tired.

2. Processing overload

Cognitive load describes how our brain absorbs information before it stores it in our long-term memory. If it is ‘overloaded’, it can affect our brain’s ability to function.

This is why it’s harder to study if you’re constantly distracted by your phone – there is too much going on for the brain to process.

In this context, cognitive overload relates to nonverbal communication. To varying degrees in different people, conversing takes up mental energy. Your brain is consciously and unconsciously asking and answering questions: Are they bored? Do I look interested? Am I talking too much?

In general, this is mostly effortless for the majority of people. On video calls, however, the pressure is intensified. Alongside the nonverbal cues we’re used to sending, we have new ones to consider: Am I centred in the frame? How is my camera angle? As I’m muted, am I nodding enough to show I agree?

In addition, it’s harder to receive nonverbal cues from other people.  In her article in the Psychiatric Times, Jena Lee discusses how losing the hints we’ve relied on since infancy make it incredible difficult to feel connected to the people we’re talking to.

Whilst an intense mimicry of eye contact may be maintained if a speaker looks at the camera, it’s impossible to tell who’s looking at who in a virtual room of three or more people. It’s also difficult for the camera to capture full-body motions or more subtle aspects of a person’s behaviour.

3. A constant mirror

In all of human history, we have probably never spent so long looking at ourselves as we have in this pandemic. For this reason, the long-term impacts of mirror usage have not been studied, but even short-term data is alarming.

Researchers have demonstrated that looking in a mirror increases self-evaluation, which can often be negative.

4. Moving around

During an in-person meeting, people typically move around more than they do online, where you’re restricted by your camera. Face-to-face, you might stretch, walk to the other side of a table to share your work, shift chairs slightly to have small-group conversations.

In addition, research by Timothy Puetz has demonstrated that the risk of fatigue is reduced by 40% in physically active adults. When all our meetings are conducted at the same desk, in the same room, it’s really difficult to exercise enough.

When we are on campus, mobility is built-in naturally. We walk to campus, or to the bus stop. We move between lecture theatres and seminar rooms.

In the current climate, some of us are lucky if we walk downstairs to the kitchen. This massive change is unsurprisingly going to have a severe impact on our physical and mental health.

5. So, what do we do now?

This scientific interpretation may help us understand our brains’ problems, but how do we solve them? Bailenson’s paper suggests software improvements to video services, but in my opinion, the real change needs to start with us.

We need to consider how to be more considerate to the people around us. If we know a friend has spent all day working online, perhaps we don’t invite them to a Zoom call. We could instead pick up the phone, or invite them on a socially-distanced walk.

Maybe we also need to be more considerate to ourselves. The current circumstances mean that we are unlikely to be as productive as before. Removing unrealistic expectations can remove unnecessary pressure, and reduce anxiety.

How can you be kinder to yourself today?

Emma Hattersley

Emma Hattersley

Editor: Science and Technology Section

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