So many people are reporting similar experiences as a result of the unprecedented increase in online interactions that it’s earned its own term, ‘Zoom fatigue’. Referring to mental drain resulting from the dramatic uptick in virtual communication, Zoom fatigue has demonstrated that using any virtual platform- Google Hangouts, Skype, FaceTime- taxes the mind in a unique way.
It isn’t just needing a brief break from the computer because your eyes are a bit tired. Why is it that after a day of meetings, a couple of hours of online socializing, or virtual classes, that we feel tired, anxious, and mentally drained?
We’re built to communicate in person
People are hardwired to interact face-to-face. After all, a large portion of communication is non-verbal. When talking in person, your brain work to interpret every aspect of the interaction, including non-verbal details: facial changes, eye contact, body language, physical distance, nervous movements, etc. Now apply that towards how online communicating works- and it doesn’t. Processing all that information from multiple people at the same time is far more challenging than you may suspect; video calls require a different form of communication than what we are used to.
Our reward circuits also kick in during social interactions – providing our bodies with oxytocin, a hormone associated with social bonding. So while you may feel happy to see friends and family using online platforms, it isn’t quite the same as in person. This is backed up with MRI data, which reveals that live face-to-face interactions, compared to viewing recordings, are associated with greater activation in the same brain regions involved in reward. So, more active social connection is associated with more perceived reward, which in turn affects the very neurological pathways resulting in alertness versus fatigue.
According to Stanford professor Jeremy Bailenson, video conferencing closely resembles having a conversation with someone just 2 feet away from you. American anthropologist Edward Hall describes this 2-foot distance as the intimate distance, where “lovemaking, comforting, protecting, and playing football or wrestling” typically occurs. We only feel comfortable letting our loved ones or close friends in this space, or, if it comes down to it, our enemies in a physical fight. So if you’re feeling anxious, stressed, tired, or any other negative emotion when you video call, it’s because our bodies aren’t used to having people within our personal space for so long, and so often.
How to combat the fatigue
Protect your physical self
There are a few things that you can do to help overcome the physical impact of excessive screen time. When preparing for meetings or online socializing, take the time to make these small adjustments:
- Position your screen about an arm’s length from your eyes and 20 degrees below eye level. This will prevent you from having to crane your neck and back and keep your hands and arms from cramping up.
- Sit on a surface that allows your feet to be planted firmly on the ground with your back straight.
- Match the brightness of your screen with your surroundings. Try using the “night mode” on your device which minimizes the blue light that is emitted from the screen. This will help reduce eye strain.
- Minimize reflected glare on your screen by dimming the lights in the room if possible and consider using a protective anti-glare screen cover.
- Use of the 20-20-20 rule. Every 20 minutes take a 20 second break and focus your eyes on something at least 20 feet away to give your eyes a rest.
- Consider using glasses that help reduce the intake of blue light and reduce glare. We use sun glasses to protect from the sun, why not protect from the light source emitted by technology?
Eye strain, if not prevented, can lead to permanent vision problems. If you notice that you already have symptoms like headaches, blurry vision, excessive blinking, etc., speak to your provider about how to better protect your eyes.
If you experience body pain- neck, back, and hips- don’t discount how much sitting you’re doing in a day. It adds up, and as we’ve shared before, too much sitting can be seriously bad for your health. If possible, take some of your video meetings standing up. Walk in place while you do so, or opt to make the interaction a voice call and walk around the block while you chat. It’ll break up the scenery, give your eyes a break, and also provide you a bit of exercise.
Protect your mental health
So what can be done to give your mind a break from required meetings and yet still participate in desperately needed socializing during this pandemic? Try these tips to lighten the mental load:
- Focus: While giving your eyes a break is a good idea, doing several things during a video call requires your brain to juggle even more while also communicating via the virtual platform. Give a video call all your attention so your brain can work at an optimum level.
- Limit your calls: Not every interaction needs to be a video call. If it can be emailed (and really, how many of these meetings should be emails?!), then type a quick message. Or make it a phone call so you can avoid screens altogether.
- Move between meetings: Even if it’s only for a few minutes, take the time to get a bit of physical activity in between scheduled calls. Walk around the block, do a few squats, planks, or check out these exercises for a quick pick-me-up.
- Adjust your outlook: Stress, anxiety, and fatigue can easily lead to people being in a bad mood. If you find your attitude is going down the tubes surrounding the time you have to video call, change your outlook. Start the meeting with something lighthearted. Encourage co-workers to take a break with you mid call and share something that brought them joy that day.
If this is difficult for adults to deal with, imagine what it must be doing to our children. While all these suggestions for preventing Zoom fatigue are valuable tools, the most important thing we can do for both our kids and ourselves when dealing with the overwhelming demands of staying connected digitally is to listen to what our bodies and brains are telling us and communicate our feelings. We are in this together.