Imagine you are walking around your workplace followed incessantly by colleagues holding a mirror that causes you to stare at yourself for large parts of the day.
The bizarre scenario is in effect becoming the norm in the era of physically distanced video conference meetings and this “nonverbal overload” is leading to “Zoom fatigue”, according to a study by Jeremy Bailenson, professor of communication at Stanford University.
The new peer-reviewed research, published in the journal Technology, Mind and Behaviour, listed the consequences of likely unprecedentedly excessive amounts of close-up eye contact with others and reflections of oneself during prolonged video chats.
“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 told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.
“When we’re forced to look at ourselves in a realtime video or mirror, we do behave as an idealised version of ourselves, in other words we try to be the best person we can be. But that comes at a cost.”
When another person’s face is extremely physically close to ours, our brains are led to believe mating or conflict is close on the horizon, according to Bailenson. “What’s happening, in effect, when you’re using Zoom for many, many hours is you’re in this hyper-aroused state.”
But there are easy ways to avoid the intensity and minimise the inevitable lethargy, he says. These include reducing the size of the video chat window and not using full screen, and using an external keyboard to create greater distance between oneself and the grid of prying faces.
Crucially, Zoom users can also diverge from the default settings and use the hide self-view button, or even periodically turn their camera off altogether if feasible, “to give oneself a brief nonverbal rest”, Bailenson writes.
“This is not simply you turning off your camera to take a break from having to be nonverbally active, but also turning your body away from the screen, so that for a few minutes you are not smothered with gestures that are perceptually realistic but socially meaningless,” he says.
In person, people can derive social cues, hints and suggestions much more easily than over video, but with mass homeworking because of Covid the frequency of video conference meetings steeply increased and Zoom became the most popular software for this purpose because it was free, effective and easy to use.
Though the platform has become increasingly ubiquitous, as its stock value almost quadrupled, there has been little appreciation of the downsides, Bailenson suggests, as companies have sought to keep business ticking over amid vast disruption.
The video conference epoch, in which many people remain more sedentary than if they were in the office, may also be leading to more permanent consequences.
Virtual consultations for cosmetic procedures have risen 64% in the US since the beginning of the pandemic, according to the American Society of Plastic Surgeons.
“We have absolutely seen an increase in the number of surgical cosmetic procedures that people have been seeking directly related to Zoom,” said Dr Michael Somenek, who has seen a 50% to 60% increase at his Washington surgery.
“The number-one procedure that people have been coming in for is either their upper eyelids or their neck. Because they see [their neck] either hanging on the camera or looking like a double chin.”