Ever since the global pandemic began — we all know her as COVID-19 — the safest way to communicate with colleagues, classmates, friends and family members has been over computers or cellphones. This was fine for a while, but a lot of people didn’t expect COVID-19 to still be such a large issue in the new year. A year full of Zoom calls, group messaging and emails, instead of communicating face-to-face, has undoubtedly caused a large psychological impact on society.
Since COVID-19, Zoom's most recent figures concluded the platform has 300 million daily meeting participants, compared to just 10 million in December 2019, according to the technology journal TechRepublic.
Communicating on a video call versus in person is entirely different than face to face conversation in so many ways.
When WiFi cuts out and a Zoom call becomes distractingly shaky and out of sync, we “strain to fill in the gaps,” making us “very vaguely disturbed, uneasy and tired without quite knowing why,” according to Paula Niedenthal, a professor of psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who specializes in affective response. The increased amount of screen time also causes damage to our sight, according to the health journal UPMC, as well as a lack of exercise from sitting in the same spot for long periods of time.
Zoom captures two of the five senses: hearing and sight. All five senses are a critical part of human experiences and relationships. Over time, not involving all senses with face-to-face interaction can start making us feel unsatisfied and depressed.
This can have an especially large impact on developing children who may be going to school strictly over video calls. According to ACT, a parenting psychology journal, the most important ages of a child’s social development are 6-10, grades 2-5. This is when a child learns empathy and fairness, discovers their sense of belonging and starts becoming more independent. For kids who started kindergarten in 2020, Zoom education is all they know.
According to Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, the third most basic need for a child after survival and safety is a sense of belonging. Without it, children struggle with finding their personality and self-esteem. Friendships built from recess, cafeterias and classrooms are a critical part of a child’s development. Relationships are a huge reason why kids enjoy going to school every day, and without them children might struggle with their motivation to learn. Also, children are much more likely to get distracted in the comfort of their own home rather than in a controlled environment like a classroom.
Zoom calls are also just straight-up awkward and can sometimes feel overwhelming.
When meeting face-to-face with a group of people, there’s something called gaze awareness, which communicates who is talking and should have the group focus at the time, according to the magazine ATD, Avert Leadership Derailment. Gaze awareness helps communicate who will be putting in their two cents next. A lack of physical social cues can lead to interruptions and a misunderstanding of others.
When we communicate mainly over video calls at home, we are more likely to be burdened by everyday distractions. When you enter a Zoom call, you are making an unspoken mutual agreement to give your undivided attention to the participants. But you have not actually left any of your distractions behind like you would if you were attending a meeting in an office. There are no boundaries, only somewhat psychological ones.
Recently, I noticed I primarily look at myself in the front-facing camera during Zoom calls, instead of the person who is talking, and it turns out this is very common among users. And they might not even notice they’re doing it.
According to Insider, people tend to stare at themselves when participating in a Zoom call because the effort to stare at multiple people at the same time can be psychologically straining. But imagine going to a meeting or lecture and staring at yourself in a mirror. This obviously would alter the way you communicate, react to conversation and, overall, would cause you to be more critical of yourself. Even if you’re making an effort to look at the person talking on Zoom, your face is always there in your peripheral vision. So, not only are you adding to your list of distractions — “Do I smile weird?” “Does my nose look big from this angle?” “Should I start parting my hair in the middle?” — but you could also be hurting your self-esteem.
How can we fix some of the negative side effects of extensive communication over video calls?
First of all, it’s important for participants in the call to know they have your full attention. If your home is too distracting, finding a remote place — a library, grandma’s house, a coffee shop, etc. — could be beneficial. Simply repeating some of the important things said during the call can let others know you were paying attention and make a productive difference.
Setting your computer or cellphone farther back so the recipient can view more of your body language and social cues can prevent misunderstandings and awkwardness. Hand movements and clear facial expressions help participants to understand the mood you’re in or what you might be trying to put across.
It also might be beneficial to suggest rescheduling the meeting if the person you’re talking to seems tired or strained. It’s very possible during the pandemic that people have multiple long Zoom calls throughout the day. An abundance of screen time can be tiring on your eyes, socially draining and can cause fatigue. Instead of wasting more time, it could be more productive to reschedule when the other party has time to regain some energy.
Also consider covering the computer camera or shutting off the video if there has been a noticeably large decline in self-esteem. Although this will make it even harder for the other person to see your social cues, your own mental health should come first. Staring at ourselves can make us too self-aware, judgmental and can be distracting.
Life is not perfect during the COVID-19 pandemic. It’ll be a big challenge for everybody to have normal-feeling interactions over video calls, but public health is more important and, hopefully, we can get back to hugging and in-person group conversations soon!
Follow Gianna Kelley on Twitter, @gianna_kelleyyy
Subscribe to The Standard's free weekly newsletter here.