As the coronavirus pandemic swept across the globe — relegating workers to their home offices (or kitchen tables or beds), happy hours to the digital sphere, and classes to a webinar format — society has been forced to grapple with the intricacies of digital interaction. While the shortcomings of the Zoom happy hour have been thoroughly documented, there’s one aspect of the video chat that needs more attention: It’s extremely odd, and even off-putting, to constantly stare at your own face when you’re conversing with other people.
Try as you might to stare into your laptop camera, it’s difficult to not look at the video of your face in the corner of your computer or phone screen. Whether it’s to analyze your own reactions to colleagues or to simply find solace among a hyperstimulating medium, gazing at your own image on video calls is hardly a novel phenomenon.
“I think it’s a very normal reaction,” says Doreen Dodgen-Magee, PsyD, a psychologist and author of Deviced! Balancing Life and Technology in a Digital World. “There’s a novelty to this new experience, to witness ourselves in a new way.”
But what impact does all this time spent staring at our faces have on our psyche?
In ordinary circumstances, people may ready themselves in the mirror prior to departing in the morning and then not face their reflection much or at all throughout the day. But with a work and social calendar dominated by FaceTimes and Zooms, we’re constantly confronted with our visage, Dodgen-Magee says.
By design, video chats provide a lot to look at and process — our co-worker’s living room, a presenter’s hand gestures, our best friend’s new puppy — all within a few on-screen pixels. All these faces can cause enough stress in our brains to trigger a fight-or-flight response. When a barrage of large faces continually populate your screen, such as in the Active Speaker mode on Zoom, our brain interprets those faces as being physically close to ours — and research shows we tend to recoil from those virtual faces. Keeping our eyes fixed on our own reflection can feel stress-relieving in this high-stimuli environment…