TORONTO -- An influx of virtual meetings might not be the only factor causing “Zoom fatigue” in potentially millions of people during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The very design of video-conferencing apps could be wiping you out too, according to a group of U.S. researchers.

Technology like Zoom -- which surged from 10 million users to more than 300 million in a matter of months last year -- places physical restraints on users, requires more cognitive labour, can amount to an “all-day mirror,” and forces everyone to stare at each other.

The compounding physiological effects of those factors can be exhausting, said researchers with Stanford University in California, who have launched a new online study to measure Zoom fatigue.

“Zoom’s interface design constantly beams faces to everyone, regardless of who is speaking,” writes Jeremy N. Bailenson, a Stanford University communications professor, in a new article published in the journal Technology, Mind and Behavior.

“From a perceptual standpoint, Zoom effectively transforms listeners into speakers and smothers everyone with eye gaze.”


In a typical environment, people don’t stare into each other’s eyes for that long. Think of an elevator or an Uber ride. We have developed social norms that make it OK to avert your gaze for an extended period of time.

In a meeting environment, people tend to use eye contact sparingly, said Jeff Hancock, the founding director of the Stanford Social Media Lab.

“Conversation is really like an eye-gaze dance,” he told over Zoom on Wednesday. People often make eye contact, acknowledge the connection, look away, and return again at different intervals, partly because being stared at causes physiological arousal and awakens the nervous system.


Video-conferencing apps also require an increased “cognitive load,” meaning users send and receive more cues than in normal settings, including the need to frame yourself in the camera, considering the volume of one’s voice, and offering more physical reactions like nodding to a speaker. 

While they may require more physical considerations, Zoom meetings also require less of us physically, and can feel restraining, researchers said. There’s no pacing around a room, water cooler breaks, or other movements that research has shown can cause better performance in meetings. Instead, we’re stuck to the viewing “frustum,” the specific space in which the webcam frames the user. 

Perhaps one of the bigger strains for some video-conferencing app users is what the Stanford researchers called a kind of “all-day mirror.” The default setting on video apps like Zoom is to show the user a view of their own camera. Seeing the self can have positive outcomes, said Hancock, noting a study where researchers put a mirror in front of a candy bowl and found people took more candy when there was no mirror. 

“Sometimes being reminded of who we are and what we’re trying to be -- a good human -- that can be valuable. But over time, if we’re just constantly looking in the mirror then that can lead to questions of ‘I don’t look the way I want to look,’ ‘I’m not who I want to be.’ It reminds us that we’re not that ideal version,” said Hancock.


There are some built-in strategies that video conferencing users can use to reduce the impact of Zoom fatigue, the researchers said, like the “Hide self view” button to avoid the “all-day mirror” effect. The researchers also recommend using an external webcam and keyboard to allow for more space from the screen and to vary your seating arrangement. They also suggest making use of the audio-only function on the apps, or simply picking up the phone when video isn’t necessary.

“Phone calls have driven productivity and social connection for many decades, and only a minority of calls require staring at another person’s face to successfully communicate,” wrote Bailenson.

As part of the new online study, Bailenson and Hancock’s team have developed a new framework to measure Zoom fatigue in hopes that they can determine if any of these strategies improve user reporting of Zoom fatigue.