When elevators first emerged in the 1800s, people riding these “ascending rooms (opens in new tab)” weren’t sure where to look (opens in new tab) but ultimately realized facing the door and avoiding eye contact was the best bet.
“Being close to someone and staring them in the eye at the same time has a very strong meaning, but then suddenly if you are in an elevator, you find yourself very close to a stranger,” says Géraldine Fauville, an assistant professor at the University of Gothenburg, Sweden (opens in new tab). “To compensate for this proximity we avoid eye contact, so you will look at your phone and you will not turn toward the other person and stare at them, that would be a very weird behavior. But basically that's what we experience in video conferences: suddenly everyone in the elevator is staring at you, is very close to you, and they are all oriented toward you.”
Fauville is part of a team of researchers working remotely at the Virtual Human Interaction Lab (opens in new tab) and the Social Media Lab (opens in new tab), both at Stanford University (opens in new tab), to study the causes of Zoom fatigue and better understand how to combat it. A former postdoctoral researcher at the VHIL, Fauville and her colleagues have developed the Zoom Exhaustion & Fatigue Scale (opens in new tab), or ZEF Scale, a 15-item questionnaire that measures Zoom fatigue.
“We've shown that Zoom fatigue is actually something that people experience,” Fauville says. “The next step in our research is comparing Zoom fatigue to phone call fatigue to face-to-face meeting fatigue.”
Suspected Causes of Zoom Fatigue
Too Much Eye Contact
“During a face-to-face meeting people will look at you, will stare at you, when you are the speaker, but the moment someone else takes over you are off the hook, people will look somewhere else,” Fauville says. “During video conferences, you have this impression that everyone on the screen is staring directly at you, so you have this feeling of being constantly the center of attention and that is just stressful in general, especially for long periods of time.”
The size of other participants' faces is often large on our screen. “If you translate that into a real situation, the size of the head would mean that the person is actually very close to you, which is not a very common situation,” she says. “Generally, if people are very close to each other, that's a very intense situation that could lead, for example, to mating or conflict.”
Too Much of A Good Thing?
During video meetings or class sessions we are looking at a live video feed of ourselves, which can be like looking into a mirror all day. “There are studies showing that seeing yourself makes you more critical of yourself, which has a positive impact on prosocial behavior, but it also has some potential emotional effects,” Fauville says. “This is tiring for the brain.”
Lack of Movement
“During face-to-face meetings it's pretty common for people to move around, go get some water, go to the whiteboard, and so on,” Fauville says. “Studies have shown that motion and movement are very important for creativity, for learning and for performance in general, so suddenly with video conferences, you are stuck in this box in view of the camera.”
No Nonverbal Cues
“During face-to-face meetings, besides what we say, we have a lot of ways to communicate with one another,” Fauville says. “It's about the intonation we use, the pauses we use in our sentences, the way we orient our body, and so on. So there is a lot of information that most of us understand naturally instinctively and that adds to what we say. With video conferences, the only information I have about your body language is your head and your shoulder, so suddenly I have to second guess what you mean behind your words.”
We also have to be more intense and put more effort into our own communication to get our meaning across. All this taxes our brain.
How To Overcome Fatigue
Turn Off Your Camera
After setting up her camera at the start of a class or meeting, Fauville uses the “hide self” function. Educators should be open to students turning off their cameras as well because of the stresses it can cause. “It is important to think about using cameras only when it really adds something. But if it’s not essential to see one another during the whole class then maybe think about letting the student disable it,” she says.
Take a Break From the Video Feed
Fauville recommends shrinking the size of your video conferencing window so it’s not taking up your full screen. It can also be a good idea to focus on something other than your screen periodically by turning your body away from your camera and screen. This way, she says, “You focus on what you hear, you don’t have to think about the body movement and so on.”
Create a Setup That Encourages Movement
Fauville says standing desks can help with mobility on video calls. You can walk in place and even pace back and forth a bit. Setting up your camera further away from you so that it captures more of the room can also allow you to move more without fear of going off frame.
An external keyboard can help you sit further away as well, which can encourage movement and put more distance between you and your screen, decreasing the intensity of the eye contact your brain perceives from other participants.
Focus on Physical Health
Beyond mental exhaustion, spending so much extra time on computers can take a physical toll on our eyes and bodies. Dr. Hallie Zwibel, the New York Institute of Technology (opens in new tab) team physician and director of its Center for Sports Medicine, is an expert on the health of esports athletes (opens in new tab). Much of the advice he and his team give esports athletes is applicable to educators finding themselves in front of a computer more frequently.
“Make sure you're limiting glare, that your screen is eye level, with a certain amount of distance between you and your screen,” recommends Zwibel. “Try to have an ergonomic chair, making sure your keyboard is ergonomically designed. We also recommend taking a standing break at least every 45 minutes. And between 20 and 40 minutes, we recommend eye stretches, just to relax the eye muscles.”
He adds, “Teachers are going above and beyond during the pandemic in trying to engage students through video. They may not realize just staring at a screen can wear out a student’s eyes. For younger children, it could be helpful to instruct them to close their eyes and imagine something related to the lesson. For older children, teachers should demonstrate eye relaxation exercises and take breaks to stand and stretch.”