We are online. We are all extremely online. We are isolated and distanced, and yet all we do is look at faces, rows of them, bright, blinking eyes fixed to the screen. We are tired. We are lonely. We have twelve more video meetings this week. We dream about crowded restaurants and coffee shops and classrooms. We log back into Zoom.

The prevalence of online video meetings has skyrocketed during the COVID-19 pandemic. If you’re an educator who pivoted to online teaching, you’ve had to become intimately familiar with video conferencing technology. And while Zoom (and other video services) have enabled us to connect to each other despite our physical distance, it's a mode of communication that is still relatively new, and that we never imagined would usurp face-to-face interactions. That means we’re discovering drawbacks we never anticipated, including what some researchers are calling “Zoom fatigue.”

According to Professor Jeremy Bailenson, founding director of the Stanford Virtual Human Interaction Lab, video conferencing is more exhausting than face-to-face meetings for four main reasons:

  1. “Excessive amounts of close-up eye gaze”: Zoom heightens and intensifies eye contact; on screen, we are forced to engage in intimate and direct eye contact, a “hyper gaze” normally reserved for those we are close to—or those we are in conflict with. In face-to-face conversation, individuals spend much of the time looking at each other only indirectly, but since faces are generally larger on Zoom than they would be in real life, and since looking away from the screen signals distraction or preoccupation, we are forced to maintain a hyper-aroused state that quickly becomes exhausting. 
  2. Cognitive load: Video calls take what is innate and natural—conversation—and turn it into something that requires an immense amount of focus and concentration. The subtleties of non-verbal cues—such as nodding to imply agreement, raising an eyebrow to communicate confusion, or watching a speaker’s body language to know when it is permissible to add your own thoughts—don’t translate to Zoom, so users must work extra hard to compensate for these deficiencies. 
  3. The Mirror Effect: As Bailenson describes, video calls with self-view mode are akin to having an assistant follow you around all day with a hand-held mirror, demanding you watch yourself perform. Research shows that people are much more self-critical when they are made to look in a mirror even for a short period of time. This is particularly true for women, who self-report more mirror discomfort and associated anxiety and depression.
  4. Reduced mobility: As a professor, you are likely accustomed to teaching in motion—moving back and forth between the board and your lectern, gesturing, adjusting your position in the room during discussion and for questions. In fact, research shows people perform better cognitively when they are allowed and encouraged to move. Video conferencing requires an individual to remain in one place and often seated, which is both uncomfortable and unnatural.

So if video-conference classes and meetings are going to be our new normal, how can you mitigate the exhaustion and stress and create an optimal learning environment for your students?

  • Make “hide self view” your default, and encourage students to do the same. You look great, trust us. 
  • It’s well understood now that humans aren’t built to multitask. Simply glancing at numerous open tabs or programs can distract you and raise stress levels, so maximize your screen when on a video call in order to simplify your visual field, and turn off any notifications. You may also consider implementing a blank background on your own video and asking any students or colleagues on screen to do the same in order to prevent visual clutter and excess stimuli. 
  • Optimize your space and set-up. When possible, make sure that the talking heads on your screen aren’t overly large (these looming faces actually trigger a flight or fight response) by keeping the video window smaller. If the resources are available, try an external keyboard and webcam that will allow you to move around while presenting. 
  • Investigate compassionate “video-on” policies. Having all students on video may be the default—and it does increase the sense of community and prevent you from feeling like you’re lecturing into the void—but it can also be draining and uncomfortable for students who have multiple classes every day, not to mention the bandwidth it requires for educators to scan through 50 tiny faces. Consider splitting larger classes into sections, and asking certain “sections” to have their videos on for the first half of the class before switching over, or for shorter classes, assign different sections different days to be on video. 
  • Take breaks, and encourage your students to do the same. Recent research by Microsoft confirms that frequent, ongoing Zoom meetings cause stress-related “beta wave” activity in the brain to increase; stress levels, however, decreased when participants were allowed to take 10-minute breaks between meetings. Be aware that what worked in a classroom setting doesn’t necessarily translate to video: you may need to take more breaks during lecture than you might in person. Schedule these in rather than waiting until you feel exhausted; you could also explore more small group breakout rooms as a way to give your students a visual shift, and to let them engage the material with their peers rather than trying to follow a lengthy lecture. At the very least, remind students (and yourself) to briefly look away from the screen every 20 minutes or so (that’s the upper time limit at which experts recommend taking a visual break). 
  • Video lectures may have become the norm, but there’s no reason you can’t switch up the modality if you or your students need a break. Record an audio lecture, assign a group project and presentation, try small, audio-only discussion groups.