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Tired of endless videoconferencing?

February 26, 2021

"Zooming" has become a generic term during this pandemic. Too tired to notice or care? That's the problem with videoconferencing, say Stanford researchers.

UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson steals a moment to look away during a virtual meeting of G7 world leaders
UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson steals a moment to look away during a virtual meeting of G7 world leaders Image: Geoff Pugh/AP Photo/picture alliance

If there was a year when we all started "googling" and a year we all started "facebooking" and "tweeting," then 2020 was the year we all started "zooming." It's not like the company behind Zoom — a US-based videoconferencing platform — invented visual chatting via the internet. Google didn't invent search engines and Facebook didn't invent social blogging, either (or hate speech for that matter).

But there's always one that takes off, and that company's name invariably becomes a generic term by which we all do that thing. It's a moment at which we know that that thing has become ubiquitous, socially relevant, and of interest to science.

So, we zoom, no matter whether we're on Skype, WhatsApp, Signal, FaceTime, Whereby, Webex, Teams, Moodle, BigBlueButton, WeChat, Telegram, Viber, Slack, Wickr — to name a few in a plethora of contenders, lest we be accused of bias.

All videoconferencing platforms have one thing in common, say researchers at Stanford University's Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL):

They give us "Zoom fatigue." 

Krieger lost in chat

What is Zoom fatigue?

"Something about being on videoconference all day seems particularly exhausting," writes Jeremy Bailenson, a professor of psychology and communication and VHIL's founding director, in a peer-reviewed study.

There are four main reasons for Zoom fatigue, writes Bailenson.

  1. Eye gaze at close distance
  2. You in an "all-day mirror"
  3. Reduced mobility
  4. Exaggerated gestures

Those four things are inherent in the technology, and they seem to cause a "nonverbal overload."

Staring at a computer screen for hours, with tiles of many, front-facing people, in a static grid, constant close eye contact, while at the same time seeing your own reflection — is exhausting, Bailenson writes.

EU and Chinese leaders' meeting via video conference
We're all 'zooming' now: EU-China leaders' meeting via video conference Image: Johanna Geron/AP/picture-alliance

If you've ever been in physical conference room, with, say, eight people around the table, you will recall (it's been so long, right?) that you seldom look everyone in the eyes, all the time.

Take down or mitigate?

In a video call, you're constantly on stage, performing. It's tough work. And often that sense of closeness is akin to an intimacy that we usually reserve for close relationships — family and friends — or when we're forced into an intimate situation, such as in a cramped lift. But even then, we find ways to look away.

In face-to-face meetings, we're often not even aware of the gestures we make, writes Bailenson.

On video calls, however, who hasn't put on an exaggerated grin at the start and end of the call and waved like they're, well… drowning, not waving? I have.

Home office communications overload

Just a few hours before writing this very article, I had an intense, 10-minute pitch with my bosses via videoconference and by the time I had got off the call, my jaw had seized up. (Fortunately, they gave my project the go-ahead, so it's all good.)

"Humans have never spent so much time on videoconferences," writes Bailenson in an email to DW. "It is important to document this transition from a psychological perspective. Second, [it's important] to come up with easy steps that people can do at home, in the short term, to mitigate fatigue."

We'll come to those solutions in a second.

About nonverbal overload

On video calls, you are sending and receiving a mass of extra information. First, you feel you have to make sure you are in the zone, and make sure that the grid sees you as being in the zone, for the duration of the call.

If you work on a laptop, you will train your eyes on a tiny dot at the top of the screen, at a distance of 30-50 centimeters from your head. That is a strain in itself.

If you are forced to look away, out of the video call, it sends a completely different message than if you were talking to a friend or colleague and someone else you knew happened to walk "into the frame" to say hello. Your original conversation partner would not feel left out. But on video, you may feel forced to overcompensate.

"Even the way we vocalize on video takes effort," writes Bailenson. He cites a 2019 study that compared face-to-face interaction to videoconferences. That study suggested people spoke 15% louder on video. "Consider the effects of raising one's voice substantially for an entire workday," says Bailenson.

Multitasking on steroids

You're having to perform a multitude of tasks on video calls, all at the same time.

Bailenson refers to another study from 1999 and a technique called a "secondary task." He says secondary task can be used to evaluate the so-called "cognitive load" of videoconferencing.

Who let the cat in? A kitten appears during a district court hearing on Zoom
Who let the cat in? A kitten appears during a district court hearing on ZoomImage: Youtube/394th District Court of Texas - Live Stream

"There was a main task for the conversation between two people, and a secondary task for them to do individually, for example, counting in your head while performing the main task," wrote Bailenson in his email to DW. "The behavioral ability on the second task is a good measure of cognitive load."

The position and size of the faces you see on screen can also affect your sense of well-being after a call. 

But experiences will vary. The VHIL research is based on anecdotal evidence, rather than, for instance, neuroscientific brain scans done during videoconferencing, or something else you could quantify in strict numbers.

The survey asks questions such as whether you feel moody, mentally drained, or want to be left alone after videoconferencing, and whether your eyes hurt. Possible answers range from "not at all" to "slightly, moderately, very, and extremely."

Long-term survey needed

Empirical surveys are legitimate, but it would be relatively hard to verify a participant's answers, or replicate the study from country to country, culture to culture, and between age groups and genders.  

In addition, the relatively short-term nature of the study so far limits the researchers' ability to say whether our brains and bodies may adapt to live better with videoconferencing the more we do it.

Krieger works from home

"If we get large samples which are spread out over time, we will begin to be able to answer these questions," says Bailenson. "We are adapting the [survey] for kids, and plan on starting to study them over the next few months."

Solutions for now

Bailenson says he wants to "encourage the platforms to make longer-term changes in the software," but recommends a few mitigating ideas that we can all implement.

  • Avoid using your videoconferencing software in full-screen mode
  • Use an external keyboard to push your screen and/or camera farther from your face (that should give you more personal space)
  • Check you are positioned well in view and then hit the "hide self-view" button (so you're not having to concentrate on how you look the whole time)
  • And give yourself an "audio-only" break

As for breaking social conventions and videoconferencing while walking in the park, that's a no-no: "Safety should be first!" Bailenson warns DW. "Walking and looking at one's phone is often quite dangerous."

Fair enough. We were half-joking, anyway.

DW Zulfikar Abbany
Zulfikar Abbany Senior editor fascinated by space, AI and the mind, and how science touches people