A cyberpsychologist explains why you can't stop staring at yourself on Zoom calls
- As millions of people migrate their social and professional lives onto video chats, Zoom fatigue is becoming a common complaint.
- Unlike face-to-face interaction, video chatting can be overwhelming and distracting for most people to process.
- Cyberpsychologist Andrew Franklin says it is good to remember that people are not fixating on you as much as you feel they are.
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Zoom classrooms. Zoom dinners. Zoom funerals. Zoom weddings. As our lives migrate online during lockdown, people are spending a record amount of time video chatting.
The amount of Zoom users jumped from 10 million to just over 300 million daily meeting participants in three months, thanks to Covid-19, while Microsoft Teams now has 75 million daily active users, and Google Meet hit 100 million daily meeting participants.
And if the format is stressing you out, you're not alone.
"A lot of adolescents deal with something called the imaginary audience, this belief in their minds that individuals around them are really paying attention to every move they make," said Franklin.
"That imaginary audience phenomenon doesn't necessarily go away [in adulthood]. People become extremely self conscious and think that eyes are on them. When in reality, they're not being scrutinized or criticized to the extent that they think they are."
Why video chats are more stressful than face to face interaction
In real life, having a conversation is about much more than just the words you're saying. People look at gestures, tone of voice, facial expressions and body language, in addition to the words being said, in order to interpret what is happening.
But on video, all of those non-verbal cues are gone. One 2013 study of 29 pairs of close friends found that on video chats, participants felt less bonded than in in-person interactions, because they unable to fully see each other.
"Online, you're relegated to a screen that may be the size of a page," said Franklin. "You're missing a lot of information that perhaps you would get if you were face to face. So people can find themselves kind of straining when when they're in a Zoom meeting. "
With face to face interactions, you can have a perfectly comprehensible conversation where multiple people interrupt each other. In person, people can process what others are saying, even when they are talking over one another, thanks to body language and other social cues.
But on a video chat, an interruption usually means an awkward pause while everyone quickly checks to ensure that they are muted. But conversational delays that would be normal in a face to face setting are excruciating over video chat. A delay of just seconds can make people perceive you as less friendly, a 2014 study found.
Often, if people don't want to interrupt, they will type out what they are thinking into the text chat, further fragmenting people's attention.
Because of the strain of having to stare at multiple people's faces in tiny boxes onscreen, and the distraction of seeing inside everyone's homes, you might end up just looking at yourself.
Many people, during video calls, find it hard not to just fixate entirely on themselves. This is so common that there are how-to articles about how to fake eye contact during video calls and personal essays exploring what happens emotionally when you spend all day on video chats, watching yourself react to things.
If you can't stop staring at yourself during a video chat, it's likely because you're overwhelmed
In real life, when you talk to someone, you aren't also seeing yourself. But on a video chat, as you talk, you're watching yourself vocalize the words and react to what other people are saying. As you're seeing yourself, you're beginning to wonder how others see you too, and that, combined with the pressure of prolonged eye contact, can be exhausting. Sometimes people even feel like they have to perform over-the-top reactions in order to prove they are present and listening.
Franklin says fixating on one's self during a video chat is partially a way to cope with the stimulus overload of video chatting.
Research shows that many people are overconfident when it comes to multitasking ability and information processing.
"Given that we only have this finite screen in front of us, we are confident we can process everything that's in front of us," said Franklin. Since everything that occurs on a video chat is contained onto one relatively small screen, people assume it should be easy to process everything that occurs on it. But that isn't the case.
Many people experience change blindness, where things change right in front of them and they don't notice it because their attention is elsewhere, and sometimes there are just too many things occurring at once in a video call to properly pay attention, even if it's just small things like people stretching or rifling around their desks.
For introverted people, the limited interaction of a video chat might be a relief. "If you concentrate on one spot, like we learned in public speaking, deliver what you have to say, mute your microphone and be done, it won't be so bad," said Franklin.
People are not fixating on you like you feel they are
But people should know that the intense scrutiny they may feel while on Zoom chats does not really exist, because everyone is giving these calls their continuous, partial attention.
While video-chatting, it's good to remember that you may not be able to process everything that's being said on a video chat, and it's okay to feel tired afterward.
If you're feeling burnt out, suggest a phone call instead, advises Franklin. Don't be afraid to script out what you want to say in advance. Doodling or walking during a call may help you concentrate more. Try putting a post-it over the section of the screen with your face.
And remember, if you're staring at yourself, it's likely everyone else is also doing the same thing.
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