Over a year ago, Zoom introduced a new classmate in each Cornellian’s learning experience — themselves.
The new sense of self awareness that students have because they have a camera on throughout class has the potential to increase social anxiety, as students are being forced to be aware of their own image more than ever, which experts say takes a toll on their learning experience.
“Social anxiety is at an all-time high,” said Prof. Vivian Zayas, psychology. “Today we have fewer in-person interactions, and as a result, we might no longer have a realistic vision of other people’s social experiences.”
According to Zayas, social anxiety generally stems from apprehension of being negatively evaluated by others — preexisting insecurities and doubts that students have perpetuate uneasiness in a feedback loop.
A study performed by Prof. Mark Sarvary on a class at Cornell found that a primary driver for students choosing to turn their cameras off is being concerned about their self image.
Zayas explained that with fewer social interactions comes increasing worry about daily experiences. With communication mostly online, students are often exposed to an unrealistic version of their peers that is edited and might not be genuine.
Prof. David Field, psychology, said that images of people online, especially on social media platforms, are always curated. Social media provides a biased view of what people are actually like, but it can be hard to recognize the distinction between photos and real life, as well as to stop from comparing one’s individual life to the online version.
Zoom, however, conveys much more information about a person’s real life than social media does.
“Zoom introduces us to new information we’re unused to,” Zayas said. “We rarely get so much information about what we’re doing when we interact, but now we’re seeing lots of our own nonverbal behaviors.”
Field explained that during normal conversations people don’t have a mirror up to their face, but over Zoom, there is a constant reminder of one’s own appearance. When students stare at themselves on Zoom, they may begin to take in and over-analyze their own nonverbal cues and fret that they are perceived as unusual by others as well.
“We have an image of what we do look like from mirrors and what we should look like from social media,” Field said. “We’re always interested in how we’re coming across when we’re talking to somebody, and over Zoom, we see much more than we’re accustomed to.”
Zayas equates this flood of new information with voice confrontation, the phenomenon that explains why people dislike the sound of their own voices.
“There’s an obvious difference between how we think we sound and how we actually sound,” Zayas said. “Sometimes when we hear ourselves we also hear whether we sound anxious, angry, or confident. It’s the same with Zoom, how people might be drawn to looking themselves but may not like that image. We’re just getting too much new information.”
According to Field, Zoom has taken some measures to reduce the overstimulation, including mirroring videos by default so users are presented with a self image they are familiar with from mirrors.
Mirrored videos or not, Field believes that people are often too preoccupied with their own image on Zoom to notice the flaws in others. In reality, students are the only judges of their own appearances over Zoom, even though anxiety may cause them to think otherwise.
Constantly checking back in on their own image on Zoom is distracting and comes with costs, Field said. Many fall to “illusion of multitasking,” which states that people think they are capable of multitasking, but it is often difficult to actually focus on more than one task.
“The switching costs for students on Zoom are immense,” Field said. “Normal conversations don’t require multitasking. If your own picture is enough to regularly distract you, it is no wonder that classes seem more difficult and much more fatiguing.”
Both Zayas and Field agree that students should use the “Hide Self View” option during Zoom meetings when cameras are on. One less distraction can only benefit students’ learning and focus.
“If it’s a distraction, turn it off,” Zayas said. “Computer-mediated communication is not a replacement for actual interaction, but make your social experiences and learning as normal as possible.”