“Zoomed to Death”: Here’s the Science Behind Zoom Fatigue

Have you ever just collapsed on your bed after having a full day of Zoom classes? Or heavily dread days where you have a 3-hour long chemistry lab? I most certainly have.

Having that many classes per day last year seems bearable. But why does it feel so exhausting now?

What Have I Done!? by Miguel Angel (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

The term “Zoom fatigue” has been on the rise all over social media since March. It describes the tiredness or burnout associated with excessive video chatting.

So why are online classes more tiring than face-to-face learning?

Due to our restricted working memory, our brains can only do a limited number of things consciously. Meanwhile, we can process more things unconsciously.

Online classes increase our cognitive load because we have to rely predominantly on verbal communication, which consumes a lot of our conscious capacity.

Much of communication is unconscious and non-verbal. We acquire information about others through non-verbal signals such as facial expressions, the tone and pitch of the voice, body posture and gestures. We also rely heavily on these non-verbal cues to prepare an adaptive response and engage in reciprocal communication, all in a matter of milliseconds.

Talking by Pedro Ribeiro Simões (CC BY 2.0)

In physical learning, we listen to what the speaker is saying while unconsciously process non-verbal cues. However, on video, most of these cues are hard to visualise.

Crackling audios and headshot videos make it difficult to capture the speaker’s facial expression, tone of voice and body language. Being in a different environment from your classmates and teachers also limits joint attention, where two or more individuals focus on a single object. Joint attention is achieved when a person directs other people’s attention towards an object through pointing, eye-gazing, or other verbal and non-verbal signs. This is hard to achieve through video calls.

Talking by Martin Abegglen (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Without these unconscious cues, we have to put in more cognitive and emotional effort. We rely predominantly on verbal information to infer other people’s emotions and at the same time, focus on what the speaker is saying. This additional conscious processing leaves us feeling tired.

This may all sound like Zoom and gloom, but don’t worry. Here I have a tip to make online classes less exhausting.

Build in Breaks!

In physical classes, we’re able to gaze out the window or look at other people in the class. But in Zoom meetings, doing so will make us look like we’re not paying attention. We feel obligated to stare at the camera for a whole hour to show that we’re listening. Engaging in this “constant gaze” makes us uncomfortable and tired.

Take mini breaks during classes by turning off your camera and looking away from your computer for a few seconds once in a while. This is not an invitation for you to go off and play video games, but to let your eyes rest for a moment. It is possible to listen without having to face the screen the whole time.

Aspects of Student Life by Randy Gibson (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Online learning can be mentally draining for both teachers and students. So don’t forget to take a break and take care of your physical and mental health during this challenging time.


9 Responses to ““Zoomed to Death”: Here’s the Science Behind Zoom Fatigue”

  1. gvanderhurk says:

    Zoom and gloom! Wonderful wordsmithery, and a great piece. I experienced much ‘zoom and gloom’ this semester; interfacing with people on 2D triangles just felt so very strange, and I ultimately began to withdraw. It’s great to see this articulated so well to help understand the psychology behind it. Let’s hope we replace zoom with real room’s sometime soon!

  2. Devia Rachmat Kurniawan says:

    That’s a great question! I’m not an expert on child psychology but in my opinion, it is something that scientists and parents should be aware of and look into since online classes is a relative new field this year. Based on the readings I did, online learning makes us rely more on verbal cues so there could be a possibility that it can hinder children’s ability to rely on non-verbal skills. So maybe parents could make sure that their child has other human interactions at home outside online classes so they can develop that cognitive ability to interpret non-verbal cues.

  3. Devia Rachmat Kurniawan says:

    Yes, I agree. I myself suffer from ‘Zoom fatigue’ and I never understood why Zoom calls are so tiring. When I was researching about the topic, it all made sense to me. I just had to share it here. I hope this will help you combat Zoom fatigue 🙂

  4. Devia Rachmat Kurniawan says:

    Hi Kate, I’m glad to hear that. I hope this will help you combat Zoom fatigue yourself!

  5. Devia Rachmat Kurniawan says:

    I agree, it all made sense to me when I was researching this topic. It was very exciting so I had to share it here. I hope this article will help you overcome Zoom fatigue

  6. Thanks Devia for reminding us that “zoom fatigue” is real and how it works, and sharing your tips on combatting it!

  7. Julia Mahoney says:

    Thanks for sharing these insights Devia! It is so true that you feel like you have to stare at the camera to look engaged on a zoom call – I didn’t realise why that was so exhausting that was until you pointed it out!

  8. cmcentee says:

    It all makes sense now – do you think for young school aged children this type of learning and relying solely on verbal cues will disrupt their cognitive capacity much or their ability to rely on other non-verbal skills?

  9. sprijaya says:

    Great read! Now I can direct people to this blog post to explain my fatigue after non-stop zoom calls!

    I never really thought about how we are able to look out the windows in face to face classes and how that would look like in zoom. Everything makes sense now..

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