Zoom Your Face

Hiding your face on Zoom may be distressing to others.

Posted May 13, 2020

When my university shut its on-campus classes and moved to Zoom, I thought this was the end of real learning. I was wrong.

After scrambling to learn how to use the technology that was new to me, I managed to teach my two college courses until the end of the semester with little drop-off in attendance or participation.

For many, shelter-in-place directives have opened up new channels. Old friends have reconnected, long-distance family members have joined online chats and new avenues for creative expression have opened with the playwright in one city, the director in another, and the actors in still another locale.

Something is clearly lost, however. A screen view is not the same as physically being in someone’s presence. For example, when I said good-bye to my students, I touched the screen, but I couldn’t shake their hands or touch a shoulder. They couldn’t see the tears in the corners of my eyes.

Video teaching and chatting is the best alternative we have at the moment. And while it is a positive for many who are isolated, for some it has the adverse effect: It increases the sense of being socially isolated and, therefore, lonely.

Robotics researchers Emily Cross of Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia, and Anna Henschel of Glasgow University in Scotland, point out that what is absent from social media is the embodiment and the social presence of others. Without the cues we get from body language, the cues of welcome, warmth, safety, and friendship can be difficult to find. This is why emojis have been added, to provide some visual information that cannot otherwise be provided.

Zoom and other such platforms can help overcome the problem of isolation if participants turn on the video. Face-to-face interactions enhance a sense of connection, while, for some, chatting without seeing the other increases the feeling of isolation and loneliness. Keep in mind how other participants may be reacting to someone who, in a video chat, chooses to keep the video off. It may seem innocent to the person who chooses not to be seen, but it may actually increase the distress of others.