Oh, that’s why Zoom is so fatiguing….

Zoom School.Joe Visitacion

The idea of Zoom fatigue isn’t Gen Z’s contribution to the long list of complaints about school. It’s real. Dr. Jeremy Bailenson and his team at Stanford’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab explain why Zooming is fatiguing even though we’re sitting in a single place, typically comfortable at home, talking or listening to others.

First, we’re not accustomed to looking at ourselves for prolonged periods of time while interacting with others, which can trigger a discomforting self-consciousness, which could produce anxiety.

Dr. Bailenson states: 

In the real world, if somebody was following you around with a mirror constantly – so that while you were talking to people, making decisions, giving feedback, getting feedback – you were seeing yourself in a mirror, that would just be crazy. No one would ever consider that.

In such a hyper-aware state, we can become overly critical of ourselves, distracted with such internal dialogue from the discussion. I’ve sometimes noted that my lapel-clipped microphone is dragging my shirt collar into an awkward position, then adjusting it trying not to draw attention, momentarily distracted during the conversation. 

Furthermore, on camera, each person’s face is displayed at a size which doesn’t occur unless at an intimate distance from another person. When someone’s face is that close to ours in real life, our brains interpret it as an intense situation that is either going to lead to mating or to conflict

“What’s happening, in effect, when you’re using Zoom for many, many hours is you’re in this hyper-aroused state,” Bailenson said.

While students often daydream during in person classes, the subtle “flight or fight” or awkwardness of an intimate moment can trigger a more sustained subconscious psychological reaction, creating exhaustion at the end of the day

Additionally, in a normal conversation or class discussion, we shift our focus from the speaker, to others in the room, to staring out the window. However, on a Zoom screen, we’re staring at everyone for the entire call. Since many people are already reticent about speaking in a group or in front of a crowd, the seeming constant scrutiny as if we’re the focus of attention on screen can create additional anxiety

Students share that they turn off their cameras during class, disengaging from the conversation, which may not be that different from a normal class when a student “zones out”, but without the “accountability” of being seen, teachers can’t readily redirect the student’s attention. Many students admit to browsing the internet or taking a nap and teachers are none the wiser. 

Furthermore, we’ve diminished our ability to communicate with non-verbal cues and facial expressions. I’ve watched students share a sideways glancing smile in the middle of an in person class, referencing some inside joke, or others nodding in agreement as a peer states their opinions during discussion, a silent encouragement to one another as well as a cue for me as the moderator to know which students are engaged and listening

But, with cameras turned off, students lose such quiet validation from others about their ideas, which can further trigger insecurities.

As Dr. Bailenson states: 

If you want to show someone that you are agreeing with them, you have to do an exaggerated nod or put your thumbs up. That adds cognitive load as you’re using mental calories in order to communicate.

As teachers and students redefine the rules of engagement during Zoom classes, many students are still navigating the typical, yet fierce politic of a high school classroom (though virtual) which without adept facilitation can stymy learning on any given day already. 

In the age of Zoom learning, students and teachers risk diminishing the quality of learning. The ready-access to teachers to ask questions, an opportunity to check for understanding, and the reticence of many students to ask questions during a Zoom class, an opportunity to learn from one another, may be lost.


For more information about how Creative Marbles Consultancy’s educational experts can help students and parents continue adjusting to new educational modes of learning as K-12 schools toggle between in person and virtual learning, contact us at Creative Marbles Consultancy

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About Jill Yoshikawa, Ed M, Partner of Creative Marbles Consultancy

Jill Yoshikawa, EdM, Harvard ’99, a seasoned, 25 year educator and consultant, is meticulous in helping clients navigate all aspects of the educational experience, no matter the level of complexity. She combines educational theory with experience to advise families, schools and educators. A UCSD and Harvard graduate, as well as a former high school teacher, Jill works tirelessly to help her clients succeed.
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