We all knew, didn’t we, that all those video calls were hard work? Research out this week from Stanford University proves what we’ve been thinking all the way through the pandemic, that all those video calls are killing our digital wellbeing, are incredibly stressful, and that ‘Zoom fatigue’ actually exists.

The researchers have identified four elements of video calls and meetings that are having a seriously negative impact on our digital wellbeing and our mental health. Unfortunately many of them are baked-in to the design of the products, proving yet again that human-centred design has a long way to go.

“Just because you can use video doesn’t mean you have to”

Professor Jeremy Bailenson, Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab

A mirror to ourselves

The Stanford research team discovered that one of the most stressful aspect of video calls is the fact that we can see ourselves on screen constantly throughout. “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,” said Professor Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab VHIL, who carried out the research.

digital wellbeing

“Decades of psychology research shows that when you’re looking at yourself we scrutinise ourselves, we evaluate ourselves, and this over time causes stress and negative emotions,” Bailenson also the Today Programme on BBC Radio 4 when discussing the research.

Close eye contact with others

Another feature that increases stress when we use video conferencing is the close and sustained eye-to-eye contact we have with others on the call which we would never replicate in real life. In face to face meetings we can glance off elsewhere, stare out the window, doodle, let our attention wander, and all the time we’re seated at a comfortable, unthreatening, distance from others. On video calls the entire faces of our fellow participants fills the screen, and they’re looking at us all the time. The amount of eye contact is hugely increased. “Social anxiety of public speaking is one of the biggest phobias that exists in our population,” Bailenson said. “When you’re standing up there and everybody’s staring at you, that’s a stressful experience.”

Other digital wellbeing impacts

Two further features of video calls are the way they stop us walking and talking, which we would do if we were on an audio call. And also, the sheer cognitive drain in trying to make sense of so many other people simultaneously as we try to decipher their body language and non-verbal cues, whilst also sending our own.

Is there a cure for Zoom?

The Stanford team suggest four fixes that can be used to lessen all that Zoom-induced stress:

  1. Turn off the ‘self-view’
  2. Minimise Zoom window sizes
  3. Angle your camera so you can walk about unnoticed
  4. Take audio-only breaks

The last one is the key.

As Professor Bailenson himself says “Just because you can use video doesn’t mean you have to”. If all these video calls are stressing us out as much as his research suggests they are, maybe we need to revert to audio for the majority of our calls? Only using video when we absolutely have to, for sharing and commenting on documents or other visual materials. Our digital wellbeing may ultimately depend upon us getting a much better balance between video and audio than we’re currently achieving.

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