What to Make of Zoom Fatigue
While being a popular search term, ‘Zoom fatigue’ is not a clearly defined concept, but rather a self-attributed state of mental exhaustion. As Fosslien and West (2020) stated ‘you’re more exhausted at the end of your workday than you used to be’. Similarly, Wiederhold (2020) explained ‘gathering online has left you tired and irritable’. Media and communication psychologist Johannes Moskaliuk (2020) discussed the term in his edublog ‘Wissensdialog’ and cautioned against a potential attribution error. In an overall mentally and socially taxing situation the use of video conferencing technology is one factor amongst many others. As Richter (2020) observed: “Due to the lockdown, the line between private and work became thinner for many individuals who were not able to differentiate anymore”.
Nonetheless, Moskaliuk (2020) offered three media psychology concepts that provide explanations for ‘Zoom Fatigue’: Increased self-awareness, misleading nonverbal cues, body-mind disconnect.
- Increased Self-Awareness: Constantly monitoring your own video feed on screen increases self-awareness. The concept of ‘objective self-awareness’ was developed by Duval & Wicklund (1972). We direct attention either outward towards the environment or inward towards ourselves, but not both simultaneously. Self-awareness can have positive effects: An experiment by Sohn, Chung & Park (2019) showed the inhibitory effect of (private) self-awareness induced by a video-feed on posting or agreeing with aggressive comments. However, constantly watching one’s own image during web conferencing makes it more strenuous to focus on the other people who are participating in the video conference.
- Misleading Nonverbal Cues: The idea that ‘reduced social cues’ lead to disinhibited, anti-normative behavior online emerged in the mid-eighties (Sproull & Kiesler, 1986). It has been widely criticized and partially replaced by more nuanced views (i.e., the Social Identity model of Deindividuation Effects, SIDE). At first glance, social cues in video conferences are comparable to cues in face-to-face communication: Participants see facial expressions and, with restrictions, also the gestures of other people. However, video-conferencing is lacking direct eye contact – we do not look at each other, we look at the web cam. Time delays and poor connectivity add to reduced nonverbal cues. Similarly, expressions can be easily misunderstood – a critical look might be due to technical issues, not based on the content of the conversation. Deciding which social cues are relevant and which are misleading makes the conversation more strenuous.
- Body-Mind Disconnect: The concept ‘embodied cognition’ sees cognitive resources as distributed over brain, body, and environment (Shapiro, 2014). Cognition is situated, time-bound and body-based. The environment is part of the cognitive system as we off-load tasks. In Zoom conferences, the physical environment does not match the cognitive tasks. In a typical class, participants will find their own seat, introduce themselves to each other, move to different parts of the room for group exercises, engage in think-pair-share or table discussions, raise their hand, whisper to their seat neighbor, talk to the instructor during breaks and scribble notes on handouts. The instructor will write the agenda on a flipchart, put down ideas and discussion results on the whiteboard, display slides, pass out hand-outs and worksheets, display a timer, offer clarification to groups and individuals whilst walking around the room, offer post-its and other material for sharing results. During a Zoom meeting, our environment is the shared screen in front of which our bodies are tied down with little to no reprieve or variation. In addition, we have to reconcile conflicting situations as one participant might be in her living room, the next on the terrace, another at his desk, and the fourth person displaying a beach background. As a result, the environment is both more varied and more monotonous as in-person. These contradictions make it harder to focus and are detrimental to cognitive flow.
Fosslien, L., & Duffy, M. W. (2020). How to combat zoom fatigue. Harvard Business Review.
Moskaliuk, J. (2020). Zoom-Fatigue – Drei Erklärungsansätze, warum Videokonferenzen so anstrengend sind. Wissendialog. Online, last checked Sept. 2020: https://wissensdialoge.de/zoom-fatigue-drei-erklaerungsansaetze-warum-videokonferenzen-so-anstrengend-sind/
Richter, A. (2020). Locked-down digital work. International Journal of Information Management, 102157.
Shapiro, L. (Ed.). (2014). The Routledge handbook of embodied cognition. Routledge.
Sklar, J. (2020). ‘Zoom fatigue’ is taxing the brain. Here’s why that happens.
Sohn, S., Chung, H. C., & Park, N. (2019). Private Self-Awareness and Aggression in Computer-Mediated Communication: Abusive User Comments on Online News Articles. International Journal of Human–Computer Interaction, 35(13), 1160-1169.
Wiederhold, B. K. (2020). Connecting through technology during the coronavirus disease 2019 pandemic: Avoiding “Zoom Fatigue”.