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Why “Zooming” is bad for your health

We all use video chat platforms to connect when it comes to business issues or when talking to family and friends. Researchers from Stanford have a warning for you: these zoom calls will not only make you feel exhausted but may also affect your mental well-being.

Inspired by the recent boom in videoconferencing, communications professor Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab (VHIL), studied the psychological consequences of spending time on these platforms every day. Just as “googling” is something of a web search, the term “zooming” has become ubiquitous and a common verb replacing video conferencing. According to the study, there are four main reasons why video calls make people feel tired and exhausted.

1) Excessive close screen eye contact is very intense.

Both the amount of eye contact in video chats and the size of the faces on the screen are unnatural. In a normal meeting, participants look at the speaker, take notes or look at a presentation being displayed in front of them. But in zoom calls, everyone looks at everyone else, all the time. A listener is treated non-verbally like a speaker, which means that even if you don’t speak in a meeting, you are still looking at faces that are staring at you. The number of eye contacts is dramatically on a much higher level. “Social anxiety about public speaking is one of the biggest phobias that exists in our population,” says Bailenson. “When you are standing up there and everyone is staring at you, it is a stressful experience”. Another source of stress is that faces in video conferences can appear too large to be comfortable with, depending on the size of the screen and whether you are using an external monitor. “In most cases, when it’s a face-to-face conversation with colleagues or even strangers via video, you see the face the size that simulates the personal space you normally experience when you’re intimate with someone,” says Bailenson. When a person’s face is so close to ours in real life, our brain interprets this as an intense situation that will lead to either mating or conflict. “When you use Zoom for many hours, you are in a hyper-excited state,” says Bailenson.

2) Constant eye contact in real time during video chats is tiring.

Most video platforms present a square shaped screen during a video chat which shows what you look like in front of the camera. But this is unnatural. “In the real world, if you were constantly followed by a mirror, so that you see yourself in a mirror while talking to people, making decisions, giving and receiving feedback, that would just drive you crazy. No one would ever consider that,” he added. Bailenson cited studies showing that people are more critical of themselves when they see a reflection of themselves. Many of us now see ourselves in video chats for many hours every day. “It’s exhausting for us. It’s stressful. And there’s a lot of research that shows there are negative emotional consequences to seeing yourself in the mirror.”

The solution: Bailenson recommends that platforms change the default practice of broadcasting the video to both the person making the video call and others when it only needs to be broadcast to others. In the meantime, users should use the “hide self-view” button, which can be accessed by right-clicking on their own photo once they see that their face is properly framed in the video.

3) Video chats drastically limit our usual mobility.

With face-to-face and audio phone calls, people can walk around and move around. But with video conferencing, most cameras have a fixed field of view, which means that a person generally has to stay in the same place. Movement is restricted in a way that is not natural. “There is more and more research that says people who move around perform better cognitively,” says Bailenson. Bailenson recommends that participants think more about the space they are video conferencing in, the position of the camera and whether things like an external keyboard can help create distance or flexibility.

4) The cognitive load is much higher with video chats.

Bailenson points out that non-verbal communication is natural in normal face-to-face interactions and each of us makes and interprets gestures and non-verbal cues unconsciously. In video chats, however, we have to make more of an effort to send and receive signals. According to Bailenson, humans have turned one of the most natural things in the world – a face-to-face conversation – into something that requires a lot of thought and preperation: “You have to make sure your head is in the middle of the video. If you want to show someone you agree with them, you have to nod exaggeratedly or give them a thumbs up. This is an extra cognitive load because you are using mental calories to communicate.

Gestures can also have different meanings in a video conferencing context. A sideways glance at someone during a face-to-face meeting means something very different from a person in a video chat grid looking at their child who has just walked into their office. The solution: give yourself an “audio-only” break during long meetings. “This means not only turning off your camera to take a break from non-verbal activity, 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.”