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June 3, 2020

'Zoom fatigue,' explained by researchers

Daily Briefing

    Editor's note: This popular story from the Daily Briefing's archives was republished on Jan. 14, 2021.

    More Americans today are using online video conferencing platforms such as Zoom to host work meetings or chat with friends and family. But the constant use has spurred complaints of so-called "Zoom fatigue," and researchers say the condition's causes go beyond just having too many virtual meetings on our schedules, Betsy Morris writes for the Wall Street Journal.

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    'Zoom fatigue' sweeps the nation

    As many people still are working at home and practicing social distancing to curb the new coronavirus' spread, more are turning to Zoom and other virtual platforms to communicate with friends and coworkers. According to Morris, 300 million people attended meetings through Zoom in April of this year, compared with 10 million people at the end of 2019.

    But the shift has led some workers to report growing tired of speaking with colleagues and friends through a screen, a condition some are calling "Zoom fatigue," especially in instances where people are required to join such online meetings multiple times per week.

    "While for some the transition has been seamless, for others it's become challenging," a Zoom spokesperson told Morris. "We're all learning this new way of communicating and adjusting to the blurred lines between work and personal interactions," and "[i]t's clear that people miss human interaction that has been limited due to" states' stay-at-home orders.

    What causes 'Zoom fatigue?'

    Jeremy Bailenson, a professor and director of Stanford University's Virtual Human Interaction Lab, told Morris that there are few studies on the effects of video conferencing on its users so far. However, Bailenson, whose team recently launched a study on videoconferencing, said the research that exists to date shows that technology like Zoom disrupts the pattern of communication humans have developed for survival.

    According to Morris, human communication requires synchrony, or an "interplay of talk, gestures, movement, and timing" between the communicators. The concept is so instinctual that researchers have even observed the synchronization among newborns, Morris writes.

    While synchrony is somewhat possible to achieve over video, the distance between communicators and a lack of non-verbal cues and real-time feedback make the practice much more difficult, according to Jingjing Han from Indiana University.

    Keeley Sorotki, director of knowledge sharing at the Ounce of Prevention Fund, said the disruption of these cues makes it challenging for users to tell if they're on the same page as their colleagues. "Ask a question and there's silence. You feel like you're talking to empty air," Sorokti said.

    As a result, people have to "wor[k] very hard to synchronize with each other" while videoconferencing and, over time, Han said that extra effort can contribute to feelings of Zoom fatigue.

    Bailenson explained, "We've evolved to get meaning out of a flick of the eye. Our species has survived because we can produce those signals in a way that's meaningful." But "Zoom smothers you with cues" that "aren't synchronous," Bailenson told Morris, and that "takes a physiological toll."

    Other aspects of the technology, including connection delays and video images that are too small or too large, also can make synchrony hard to achieve—and make users feel uncomfortable, Morris writes.

    For instance, researchers noted that Zoom users' typically can see a live video of themselves during meetings, which could contribute to stress. Amy Gonzales, an assistant professor at UC Santa Barbara, likened the experience to watching oneself in a mirror. "When you look in a mirror, what you tend to see is your objective self," which can cause you to criticize your appearance, Gonzales said.

    Research has shown that viewing large images of our colleagues can be unsettling, as well. According to Morris, "[a]udiences are particularly sensitive to images of people, especially when they are too big and too close." For example, she cites one study by researchers at Stanford University that found particularly big screens can activate a person's sympathetic nervous system that is associated with human's fight-or-flight response—"likely in part because they made images look closer and more threatening," Morris writes (Morris, Wall Street Journal, 5/27).

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