The other side of the screen

The Bottom Line

  • Families, friends, students and workers have been able to stay connected and go about their business despite the confinement thanks to virtual communication platforms. 
  • Seniors may experience stress from using technology, despite their increased use of it since the start of the pandemic.
  • People are increasingly experiencing "Zoom fatigue" (a term referring to the popular platform), which reflects the anxiety and exhaustion associated with overuse of virtual communication platforms. 

The COVID-19 pandemic and the pandemic responses have turned our lives upside down. The closure of office spaces and schools, restrictions on visiting loved ones, healthcare facilities and nursing homes have greatly limited our ability to maintain "face-to-face" connections. 

Our lives have quickly pivoted to virtual communication platforms to stay connected and go about our business. Overnight, happy hours with friends, birthdays, work meetings, homeschooling, medical follow-ups... everything was going to happen on the screen.

More and more people have been complaining of "Zoom fatigue," a term referring to the popular videoconferencing platform. This expression reflects the anxiety and exhaustion linked to the overuse of virtual communication platforms such as Zoom, Skype, FaceTime, Google Meet or Microsoft Teams. Since the beginning of the pandemic, older adults, caregivers and families have been told over and over again to use technology to stay in touch, and to prevent and control the spread of the virus.

We know that technology can cause stress in older adults, as evidenced by studies conducted in 2016 and 2020 in people aged 60 and older. This "techno-stress" results from the ubiquity of information and communication technologies in modern society and their impacts: information overload, invasion of privacy, blurring between public and personal life, and pressure to develop digital skills.(1)

Although no robust systematic review could be identified about zoom fatigue among older adults and the general population, experts (including psychologists, computer scientists and neuroscientists) have raised a red flag. The overuse of virtual communication platforms could lead to cognitive distortions and non-verbal overload inherent in video communication. This could even increase feelings of isolation and anxiety.(2) 

What can contribute to Zoom fatigue

A researcher from Stanford University in the United States recently published an article on the phenomenon of Zoom fatigue, which may be attributable to four main factors.(3)

1- Excessive eye contact

During a videoconference, seeing others in close-up and being stared at by several pairs of eyes is unnatural and creates performance anxiety. 

2- Cognitive overload 

In front of the camera, we are constantly on the lookout for our gestures to make sure we are sending the right signal to others. For example, we force ourselves to nod for long seconds or give a thumbs up to show our agreement, etc. Non-verbal language is thus controlled, which scrambles the signals sent and generates intense brain activity to decode them.

3- Loss of mobility

In a face-to-face meeting, non-verbal communication is done unconsciously and freely. During a phone call, people can walk, stretch, yawn, scribble. Not in front of a screen where we are forced to stay still and centred in front of the camera. All this greatly reduces our mobility and well-being.

4- The mirror effect

Seeing yourself on the screen, under an unflattering light and for many hours can have a perverse effect and generate stress or negative feelings. Nobody (or almost nobody) likes to look in the mirror all day long! 

(Almost) everything is in the dose

The concerns related to virtual communication platforms remind us that it can be important to better dose their use. It's not always justified choosing the videoconference for every call we make. That said, if you do, there are some small things you can do to reduce the cognitive overload and stress you may feel:

- Hide the camera so you don't see your reflection all the time;

- Reduce the size of the windows of the people you are talking with so that you don't see them in large shots;

- Take breaks to look around or stretch; or

- Choose a different location or different tools to hold your meetings, such as a better chair or a portable keyboard.

If you feel depressed, irritated, tired after your videoconference meetings, don't hesitate to suggest to your friends, family and colleagues to use the good old phone once in a while!

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