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Can How You Look on Screen Contribute to Zoom Fatigue?

People who don't like looking at themselves experience more Zoom fatigue.

Key points

  • Zoom meetings can create "mirror anxiety," leading to Zoom fatigue, especially for women.
  • For self-conscious people, spending more time viewing the Zoom camera led them to avoid virtual meetings.
  • You can turn off your video feed to fight zoom fatigue if you know it won't create a negative impression.
Anna Shvets from Pexels
Source: Anna Shvets from Pexels

With the COVID-19 pandemic moving many business meetings, classes, and even social gatherings online, people suddenly spent much more time using videoconferencing software like Zoom. Despite Zoom and similar platforms being in use for years, the phenomenon of "Zoom fatigue" has only recently garnered broad media coverage. The phrase only earned its own Wikipedia page in February 2021.

This phenomenon has prompted psychologists to figure out why Zoom is so exhausting. That research has identified a range of factors, including the difficulty of making sure you're communicating well in an unnatural environment, maintaining constant eye contact, experiencing bodily discomfort, and constantly looking at yourself on camera. This last factor has been the subject of several recent studies seeking to identify how people's level of self-consciousness and attitudes toward their appearance can make constantly being on camera especially stressful.

Self-Consciousness

One factor contributing to Zoom fatigue is "mirror anxiety." Mirror anxiety is triggered by constantly seeing your video feed throughout the meeting. A long history of research in psychology demonstrates that looking in a mirror increases our attention to ourselves. Multiple studies show that women tend to experience more Zoom fatigue than men, and one documented reason is that they experience more mirror anxiety. Additionally, Zoom dramatically increases the feeling that everyone is looking at you, particularly when you're speaking. Being stared at while you're talking can cause anxiety during virtual meetings.

This is likely to be especially true for people already high in a trait called public self-consciousness. Public self-consciousness is the tendency to focus on how others perceive you. This means people high in public self-consciousness expend a lot of mental effort trying to make a good impression and control their behavior. This is heightened during a Zoom conference because you're both trying to pay attention to others' reactions and acutely aware of your appearance, and motivated to modify your expressions or posture as you watch yourself on camera. The greater burden that this virtual mirror puts on self-conscious people, in particular, suggests this aspect of Zoom fatigue may not be universal.

Two recent studies found that the association between exposure to self-view during virtual meetings and a preference for in-person rather than Zoom meetings depended on participants' level of public self-consciousness. For people high in public self-consciousness, the more time they spent having to stare at their image during Zoom meetings, the more they sought to avoid virtual meetings. But for people who didn't experience much public self-consciousness, how much they had to look at themselves during virtual meetings was unrelated to their attitudes toward virtual meetings.

Appearance Dissatisfaction

Other research suggests that a particular aspect of self-consciousness — dissatisfaction with your appearance — can help explain Zoom fatigue. A new survey study found dissatisfaction with one's facial appearance related to experiencing more motivational, visual, emotional, and general fatigue after virtual meetings. For those unhappy with their appearance, viewing their camera feed is a constant reminder of something that upsets them.

Making matters worse, webcams and phone cameras set up close to one's face can create appearance distortions or emphasize certain flaws, which can be distracting or even disturbing, particularly for those who are already unhappy with their appearance.

Suppose people dissatisfied with their facial appearance spend extra effort during the meeting to achieve a more attractive appearance (adjusting the angle at which they appear, adjusting their posture). In that case, this is likely to make the virtual meeting even more exhausting. Like the study on mirror anxiety, this study also showed greater Zoom fatigue among women than men, partly explained by women's lower appearance satisfaction.

Fighting Fatigue

What can you do to ward off appearance-related Zoom fatigue? You can turn off your video feed when cameras are optional, and you aren't concerned that this will create a negative impression. However, when that's not possible, there are some partial workarounds:

  • Hide your video view: Many conferencing platforms allow you to hide your camera view and only see other people's. This might be a good option for people who are generally unhappy with their appearance as it will pull their focus away from their image. For people high in self-consciousness, this could also help since it should reduce self-focus. However, it may not do the trick if they are still aware that others can see their camera feed and feel they are losing their ability to control it properly.
  • Use an avatar. Depending on the situation, it may be acceptable to have a virtual avatar, such as a cartoon version of yourself, represent you on screen. These avatars can mimic your movements and facial expressions. Thus, if work colleagues or teachers running a Zoom meeting are concerned about speaking to a faceless cameras-off room or those with cameras off not being attentive, the avatars can show that each meeting attendee is engaged.
  • Use a filter that draws less attention to your facial appearance. In informal situations, using a video filter that allows you to "wear" virtual dog ears and nose or other humorous costumes may be acceptable to obscure your face partially. This may be especially useful for people who aren't necessarily that self-conscious but are dissatisfied with their facial appearance. Naturally, there are many situations where this would be inappropriate, so I would certainly not recommend this for a work meeting! (Although you could go down in Internet history, like the "Zoom cat lawyer.")
  • A more subtle trick to make you more comfortable with your appearance may be to mirror your video. Research shows people prefer their mirror image to a true photographic image because they're more familiar. Thus, you may be more satisfied with your Zoom appearance if the image is mirrored.

Constantly staring at a virtual mirror can be exhausting, particularly for people who are highly self-conscious or unhappy with their appearance. There are several ways you may be able to reduce appearance-related Zoom fatigue. The best method may depend on why you experience it (private appearance dissatisfaction or public self-consciousness) and the norms for the Zoom meeting you're in (i.e., professional or social).

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