(March 5, 2021) ‘Zoom fatigue’ is real. And Jeremy N. Bailenson, professor, media psychologist and the founding director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab is beginning to identify some of the science behind it.
His peer-reviewed article by Nonverbal Overload: A Theoretical Argument for the Causes of Zoom Fatigue was just published in the American Psychological Association’s Technology Mind and Behavior journal.
When the COVID-19 pandemic drove millions of workers back into their homes to work and onto an inexpensive and easy-to-use videoconferencing software called Zoom, the notion of ‘Zoom fatigue’ was unheard of. But within five months, Zoom went from having 10 million users in December 2019, to more than 300 million users, and people began spending more time talking to more people in front of their computers than they ever thought possible.
Now, one year later, people are describing the side effects of constant videoconferencing as ‘Zoom fatigue’, which Bailenson describes as a ‘semantic label,’ similar to how ‘Googling’ something refers to looking something up online.
“There was a transformation in that we went from rarely videoconferencing to videoconferencing very frequently and without really knowing the parameters of what the costs and the benefits are and how to really think about that,” said Bailenson in an interview with the Washington Post.
“I focus on four possible explanations for Zoom Fatigue,” writes Bailenson, “excessive amounts of close-up eye gaze, cognitive load, increased self-evaluation from staring at a video of oneself, and constraints on physical mobility.”
He writes that ‘excessive amounts of eye gaze’ would be understood by anyone who speaks for a living and “understands the intensity of being stared at for hours at a time … This exceeds the typical amounts of intimacy people tend to display with strangers and causes discomfort.”
The ‘cognitive overload’ on Zoom relates to having to send and receive extra cues. Users are forced to consciously monitor nonverbal behavior and to send cues to others that are intentionally generated as well as drawing meaning from head and eye movements of others.
And he says there’s an ‘all day mirror effect’ from having to look at oneself for so much time.
“Imagine,” he writes, “in the physical workplace, for the entirety of an 8-hr workday, an assistant followed you around with a handheld mirror, and for every single task you did and every conversation you had, they made sure you could see your own face in that mirror. This sounds ridiculous, but in essence this is what happens on Zoom calls.”
Lastly, there’s the ‘reduced mobility’ of sitting in front of a computer all day. “People tend to stay close enough to reach the keyboard,” he writes, “which typically means their faces are between a half-meter and a meter away from the camera (assuming the camera is embedded in the laptop or on top of the monitor).”
To continue taking advantage of the convenience of Zoom while mitigating some of the downside, Bailenson suggests:
- Minor changes to the design of the Zoom interface such has hiding the self-window as a default setting or remove automatically after a few seconds once users know they are properly in the shot.
- Make audio only Zoom the default
- Use the telephone more often
- Cut down on the number of meetings you’re taking.
“Videoconferencing is here to stay,” he concludes, “and as media psychologists it is our job to study this medium to help technologists build better interfaces and users to develop better use practices.”
He says although his conclusions are based on academic research readers should consider these claims to be arguments, not yet scientific findings.
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