• You're likely to have spent more time than ever looking at screens this last year, as work and socialising has all moved online in lockdown

  • Trainee psychotherapist Emma Kilburn explores the psychological and emotional toll this can take

Whether it’s Zoom, Skype, Google Meets or Microsoft Teams, it’s likely that at least one video-calling platform has assumed a far greater role in your personal and professional life over the last year than ever before. 

While it is undoubtedly true that this technology has helped reduce our sense of isolation when it has not been possible to meet friends, family or colleagues face-to-face, it has not been without its challenges. Many of these challenges are technological: the audio cuts out, our screen freezes, or our wifi throws us off a call. However others, less tangible but just as significant, have been psychological challenges: how to cope with the limitations of communication on screen, how to deal with the fact of seeing ourselves on screen so frequently, how to manage the loss of the opportunity physically to be with our loved ones, and above all how to manage the sheer number of hours we are spending in front of a screen each day.

Struggling to connect

Online communication can feel particularly draining since it deprives us of so many clues we rely on in face-to-face interaction. When we talk to someone ‘in real life’, we can draw not only on what they say but on their gestures, tone of voice, facial expressions and body language to interpret what is happening in the conversation and how the other person is feeling. 

Online, with each person reduced to at most the size of a screen, those non-verbal clues are either lost entirely or seriously limited. According to research, one effect of this is that we can feel less of a connection with the other person, since non-verbal communication is often what gives greater context and depth to our interactions. This takes a psychological toll, and we also feel the need to pay closer attention in order to be able to decipher what non-verbal information we can still access. However limited, these non verbal clues do mean that video-calling has clear advantages over an old-fashioned phone call, even when we are just chatting one to one.

Of course, very few of our online interactions are one-to-one, and the more the participants, the greater the challenges. When we are with a group of friends, we often interrupt each other or talk over each other, in our enthusiasm to get our point across. In person this is not particularly problematic: body language and other clues help us understand what others are saying, even if we don’t pick up on every word. In contrast, online interruptions feel more chaotic, and can often lead to an awkward silence as members of a group try to pick up on a signal as to who should speak first. 

Online get-togethers also deprive us of another of the regular patterns we adopt when socialising with our friends: breaking into smaller groups before rejoining a whole-group conversation. This rhythm is lost on a video call, and it can be taxing and sometimes stressful to have to follow the thread of a group conversation, and not to be able to have personal interactions with members of the group. And it is not only the group conversation but the silences within it that can be stressful. While they form a natural part of the ebb and flow of face-to-face conversations, silences that occur online can create anxiety as people check their technology or wonder if their friends have forgotten to unmute. Studies have also shown that delays in responses, even of just a few seconds, can lead us to see the person we are talking to as less friendly and less engaged. Even with our closest friends and family, this can lead to anxiety and an increased sense of isolation.

Self-consciousness online

Being on video forces us to be much more aware of our own appearance. This increased awareness can lead to the belief that others are as aware of it as we are. Not only does this heighten our sense of self-consciousness, but it also creates a social pressure in that we feel the need to be performative in the way we interact with our audience. It is similar to a phenomenon experienced by many teenagers, called the imaginary audience, which is a belief that those around them are paying close attention to everything they say and do. Online interaction can spark this anxiety again in adults. We need to remember that in reality, we are not being observed to anywhere near the extent that we think we are, and that in fact participants in any online interaction are unlikely to be giving it or us their full attention, and to be more focused on their own image than ours.

While this might be reassuring in terms of how others see us, it hints at further psychological challenges posed by the use of this technology. Seeing our image reflected back at us for hours each day – even if we are no more than a tiny, moving image in the corner of the screen – can take its emotional toll. Much of this can be linked to how we feel more generally about our physical appearance. If our overriding opinion is a positive one, we are likely to feel even more positive about how we look when we see ourselves in this new, digital mirror. On the other hand, any tendency to self-criticism is likely to be exacerbated by the experience of being continually exposed to a reflection of our face online. Yet even if we are aware of the negative emotions stirred up by staring at our own face, rather than engaging with those of our colleagues or friends, both research and anecdotal evidence suggest that we largely continue to do so.

Self-care to manage screen time

There are various things we can do to help us manage the stress this habit can cause. Simply being aware of the impact that this interaction with our own image may have can help. Even if we don’t struggle with negative self-image, seeing ourselves on screen when we are dealing with a more difficult moment in an online interaction has been shown to heighten our emotional response. It therefore becomes more challenging for us to find a way to navigate through problems – whether personal or professional – as they are unfolding online. The more we understand the impact that online communication can have, the kinder we can be to ourselves. 

There are also more practical adjustments we can make to lessen this impact. Most video-calling platforms offer the opportunity to either hide or minimise self-view, which makes it much more difficult for us to self-monitor and self-criticise during a call. Zoom offers the opportunity to touch up our image, and for those of use who are particularly critical of our physical appearance, there is now all sorts of guidance online about how to ensure your lighting is as flattering as it can be.

While these kinds of small adjustments to our own image can make a big difference, it can also be worth considering how we interact with others and with their images online. We can try to really focus on the person who is talking on the call, in the same way we would in a face-to-face interaction. How does she  look? How is she feeling? What does her tone of voice tell me? Switching to speaker-view on the call can really help us focus in this way. Yes while these techniques can lessen our anxiety about our own appearance, the fact remains that maintaining these levels of focus  can be draining over time. Turning our camera off to take a break in a work meeting might seem like a sensible option. However – as we may have experienced when others in a meeting choose this option – this can often lead to a sense that we are only half-present, only half participating. 

Another option for work meetings, if we are lucky enough to have two devices, might be to log in on both, leaving the camera switched on on only one, which we place off to one side while we work on the second device. This gives us the opportunity to switch between screens, and between monitoring ourselves and others on one hand and focusing on other material we may have on our second monitor on the other. If we really need a break, I recently read an article in which the author suggested dimming your monitor during a video call. This allows you to interact with a dark or even black screen, and the people you are talking to are none the wiser!

Taking care of your mental health

While we navigate the demands of online communication, the most important thing is to retain an awareness of its potential psychological impact, and to ensure we give ourselves time away from screens and from work to recharge and reset. Introverts may currently have it easier than extroverts in this regard. The problem remains that when we do want to connect with loved ones, during this period when opportunities for face-to-face communication with our family and friends are so limited, this is most likely to involve a screen. And while chatting online can be fun, distracting and relaxing, we may often leave a social call with friends or family feeling dissatisfied, or less emotionally replenished than we would have felt, had we been able to meet in person.

The benefits of social interactions online can also be limited by the fact that they are happening in the same place, and through the same screen, as meetings we might have while working from home. Ordinarily, our interactions take place in different locations, and we often assume different roles depending on those locations – as a colleague, friend, parent or child for example. Yet at the moment many, usually separate, aspects of our lives are all happening in the same place, through our computer screen, from our home. This loss of variety and blurring of boundaries can make us more vulnerable to feelings of anxiety as we try to navigate different relationships and settings from the same physical and psychological location. This anxiety can be exacerbated by the fact that every time we see a colleague or a friend on screen, we become more aware – even if only unconsciously – of the lost opportunity of being with these people ‘in real life.’

While restrictions around social interaction remain in place, there are no quick solutions to these problems, though an activity away from our computer can often serve as a good buffer between our professional and our social lives and identities. 

More broadly, the more we are able to retain an awareness of the potential psychological consequences of video calling, the more we are able to make informed choices about how much time we spend in front of a screen. Of course, the majority of work-related calls may be non-negotiable. However, it may be that there are sometimes options to speak on the phone, rather than automatically turning to a video-calling platform. We may choose to be more circumspect when it comes to joining work-related social events online, whether that be leaving drinks, happy hours, quizzes or book clubs. At the very least, we may feel able to give ourselves permission to limit the amount of time we spend participating in them. 

The same may be true of social commitments online: if we are feeling online fatigue, joining friends for fifteen minutes, in which we feel able to connect and really engage with them, may be more restorative for us and them than feeling we have to commit to two hours’ chat when in fact we just want a break from our screen. Honesty with ourselves and others is key, along with a recognition that online communication will never entirely substitute the benefits we derive from meeting friends, family and colleagues face-to-face. We can’t expect to feel as connected to other people as we might usually do, and it is okay for us to feel rather emotionally short changed at the moment. Hopefully, before too long, we will be back to meeting face-to-face, and to all the benefits that can bring. 

In the meantime, we can aim for a more mindful use of technology and also recognise that despite its drawbacks, technology has undoubtedly enabled us to feel less alone and more connected as we have tried to cope with what the last year has thrown at us.

Emma Kilburn is a trainee psychotherapist and writer

Further reading

How can I overcome social anxiety and self-consciousness?

Dear body, a love letter

How has life changed under lockdown?

Self-care for when you're feeling overwhelmed

What have you realised about your life in lockdown?