The wonders of modern technology have meant that despite over a third of humanity under lockdown due to the Covid-19 pandemic, many of us are able to continue working from home and talking with loved ones over the Internet. Video chat services such as Zoom, Skype, and Facebook Chat have seen a boom in their use as they host virtual classrooms, services, quizzes, and even first dates. But no matter how convenient video chats may be, by the time you’re on your third consecutive virtual pub quiz of a two-day weekend the concept of logging on can start to feel like a chore. If you feel like that, luckily, you're not alone. It even has a newly coined name: "Zoom fatigue". We spoke to a psychologist to find out why some of us are experiencing Zoom fatigue as social distancing forces socializing to go digital.
“A relevant line of enquiry here is the 'cues filtered out' theory, which goes back to the early days of text-based computer-mediated communication,” said Dr Paul Penn of the School of Psychology at the University of East London and author of The Psychology of Effective Studying in an email to IFLScience. “The issue it addresses is that in digital communication, non-verbal cues – facial expressions, gaze trajectory, gesticulation – are often either absent or distorted. In terms of online video chatting, things like a time lag, low resolution, dodgy camera angles/lighting, technical hitches etc all contribute to making such cues more difficult to perceive and respond appropriately to.”
Dr Penn explained that while this might sound trivial, it actually makes the process of interacting with others significantly more draining compared to face to face conversation. Conversation is built upon a back-and-forth interaction between two or more people, and for that to flow we rely on those in the chat to pick up on conversation cues so that we don’t all speak at once. This kind of subtle, non-verbal communication is much harder when chatting online because conversation cues become distorted, and the more people who are involved in the chat the more difficult it becomes.
Picking up on these non-verbal indicators then becomes even more complex and exhausting when you throw technical errors into the mix, for example, if your microphone or connection is playing up. Making a few flat jokes is embarrassing enough IRL but if nobody’s responding to you due to faulty equipment it can quickly lead to feelings of irritation and isolation. “All in all, the increased effort required to monitor and contribute to on-line video-based chats takes more effort and entails more frustration than it does in the real world, hence the greater tiredness and lower enjoyment associated with its use,” Penn explained.
Picking up on conversation cues is problematic when talking to a potato.
He suggests this building resentment could be worsened as the result of cognitive dissonance, a theory described in the 1950s that outlined how we become stressed when our views and beliefs are inconsistent. We alleviate this stress by changing our views or denying that an inconsistency ever existed to begin with. Penn posits that this relates to the lockdown in that we’d gotten used to seeing video calls as a voluntary alternative to face-to-face communication, but the lockdown has forced us to change the way we view them.
“Thanks to the pandemic, we're now being forced to use [video calls] outside of our own terms for many of our interactions and in more formal settings, such as work. This is causing dissonance in the way we view the capacity to chat online via video. On the one hand, we can see it's a necessity and place great value on it. On the other hand, we’re discovering that we don’t like it being an exclusive substitute for face to face contact. We want to do something to reconcile these conflicting views of online video-based chatting," Penn said. "Our perception of video-based online chatting has been sullied by the stress and disaffection associated with its imposition on us and our reduction in the control we have over its pervasiveness in our day to day lives.”
There's also an element of performance involved with video calls that isn't required when talking over text or the phone. Receiving a surprise Facetime puts us instantly on the spot, whether we've had a chance to brush our hair or not. This perceived need to look "camera ready" for video calls brings with it more pressure during a time when many of us are already feeling stressed and anxious, making us "resent its intrusion into all areas of our lives, including those we might prefer to restrict to off-line contexts," as Penn puts it. Any anxieties about our self-image are likely to come into the forefront when, on certain apps such as Zoom, we're forced to sit in front of a screen that also shows our own faces back to us. Being physically aware that other people can see us and are perhaps analyzing how we look or behave can make ourselves analyze how we look or behave, or may appear to others, all of which is incredibly distracting, and can make following conversations or a meeting difficult.
While Penn states that he doesn’t believe there’s any evidence-based interventions to stem the Zoom fatigue, he suggests that cutting back on unnecessary video calls could provide some relief. Back-to-back video calls can be draining, so sacrificing the video in favor of a phone call may make you feel a little less under the Zoom thumb. For informal video calls, structuring your chats with a game or quiz can avoid some of the exhausting awkwardness of missed conversational cues by bringing structure to the proceedings. Furthermore, you’re no more required to turn up for more social events that you would’ve done IRL. Conserve some nights of the week to keep away from your laptop screen – even if you do end up in front of the TV.