Stanford professor answers a modern quandary: Why is Zoom so exhausting?

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The Zoom video meeting and chat app has become the wildly popular host to millions of people working and studying from home during the coronavirus outbreak. (Photo by OLIVIER DOULIERY/AFP via Getty Images)

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(WETM/NEXSTAR) – The COVID-19 pandemic has brought with it new technology as well as ways of connecting with others. Screen time was once a “do not” and now it is a “must-do”. If you, like many people, have spent an impressive amount of time on Zoom since the start of the pandemic, you may have experienced the phenomenon known as “Zoom fatigue.”

Why is sitting down on a virtual meeting exhausting? A new publication this week in Technology, Mind, and Behavior, looks for answers.

According to study author and Stanford professor Jeremy N. Bailenson, Zooming is largely exhausting due to what he calls “nonverbal overload,” or “excessive amounts of close-up eye gaze, cognitive load, increased self-evaluation from staring at video of oneself, and constraints on physical mobility.”

In a regular meeting, you may get up or take a break. After the meeting, you may walk around or move from your seat. In the Zoom-era, that has changed completely. At times, there is no change of scenery, no mobility, and no person to person contact.

Additionally, Bailenson points out that the study is theoretical, and the claims it makes are arguments, rather than scientific findings.

Regardless, Bailenson makes a series of compelling explanations for Zoom fatigue.

For one, behaviors usually reserved for close relationships, such as long stretches of direct eye contact and close-up faces, have suddenly become the norm for interacting with everyone on Zoom.

“Anyone who speaks for a living understands the intensity of being stared at for hours at a time,” Bailenson writes. “Even when speakers see virtual faces instead of real ones, research has shown that being stared at while speaking causes physiological arousal. But Zoom’s interface design constantly beams faces to everyone, regardless of who is speaking. From a perceptual standpoint, Zoom effectively transforms listeners into speakers and smothers everyone with eye gaze.”

Secondly, Zoom requires users to “work harder” to send and receive nonverbal communication signals. Users must constantly monitor nonverbal behavior and send intentionally generated cues to others, such as nodding exaggeratively or making direct eye contact when speaking.

“Even the way we vocalize on video takes extra effort,” Bailenson said.

Receiving cues can even be tiring, and on Zoom, users receive fewer cues than they typically do with face-to-face conversations. Plus, with your head centered on the screen, “the influences of facial expressions, eye gaze, and size of the heads within a screen are likely magnified on Zoom,” meaning fewer cues have outsized impact on one’s reception.

In this aspect, Zoom acts like “an all day mirror”: “Imagine 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.”

Such constant self-evaluation can be tiresome and even “stressful.”

Lastly, videoconferencing limits physical mobility. It’s natural to have your face centered in the screen, and to be present on the screen while the meeting is in-progress, so you can’t move around as you would in a face-to-face meeting: no standing, pacing or stretching.

In conclusion, Bailenson underscores the importance of Zoom and other videoconferencing tools for enabling society to continue to run even amid the pandemic, and he stressed that further research is needed.

“Most of the arguments in this article are hypothetical,” Bailenson writes. “While they are based on previous research findings, almost none of them have been directly tested. It is my hope that others will see many research opportunities here, and will run studies that test these ideas.”

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