If you’re experiencing Zoom burnout, try audio-only meetings to help boost productivity and imagination

Zoom Fatigue
When we have Zoom fatigue from too much screen time, we tend to remember less information.

  • Zoom fatigue is more than eye strain from screen time – it hurts our productivity and job performance.
  • Over video, we work harder to send and receive nonverbal cues, and this can become exhausting.
  • Try audio-only meetings instead to stimulate the imagination and help prevent mental overload.
  • See more stories on Insider’s business page.

Just as other brand names make their way into the dictionary, Zoom has now become a daily verb and a noun. We Zoom each other, we say “Let’s have a Zoom,” and we get Zoom fatigue. Now there’s Zoom burnout as well – a phrase that encompasses a lot more than the eye strain of too much screen time.

Emerging research shows we get less done and we may end up unnecessarily replicating communication in our personal and working lives. A new study highlights the causes of this fatigue and how to deal with it.

Too much Zooming can become mentally demanding. There’s a lot of evidence that when people are mentally tired, they tend to act less efficiently. Sustained performance on a mentally demanding task decreases over time.

Also, when we’re fatigued, our working memory performs less well. We become forgetful, our listening quality degrades, and recording Zoom meetings for later viewing simply creates more energy sapping screen time.

The online meetings designed to get things done could be the very things harming our productivity, just at a time when margins are particularly tight and businesses are financially on the edge. And there’s some evidence that using audio only might be more productive than an overload of screen meetings.

Zoom fatigue

The new study highlights the psychological impact of spending hours each day on a range of video calling platforms. The study found people often reach “nonverbal overload” with too much eye contact. This means we need to work harder to send and receive all those nonverbal signals that are lost when many of us are just a head filling the screen.

In face-to-face meetings, another study points out, nonverbal communication flows naturally and “we are rarely consciously attending to our own gestures and other nonverbal cues.” This is one of the reasons many people can’t wait to get back to face-to-face. For others, Zooming is fine until the fatigue kicks in, then an unease arises.

This is where the good old phone meeting could come in. The same study describes “a wonderful illusion that occurs during phone calls.” We’re no longer weighed down with nonverbal overload or eye contact meltdown. We may even stretch, move around the room, even make a cup of tea as we speak.

We tend to imagine we are getting 100% of the others’ attention on a phone call. The researchers conclude that “only a minority of calls require staring at another person’s face to successfully communicate.”

Give up Zoom?

Many experts are now calling for fewer Zoom meetings.

Yet, evidence for seriously considering meeting over the phone comes from other academic work that goes back a lot further. Early studies comparing TV radio, newspapers, and computer screens identified newspapers as enabling significantly highest recall of facts. Computer screens surprisingly performed closer to newspapers and better than TV and radio. So, one up for the screens? The problem is we tend to remember less when we have screen fatigue.

In contrast, a lot of research confirms how radio stimulates the imagination. “I prefer radio to TV because the pictures are clearer,” goes the old saying. Whether with the phone, radio, or podcasts, our active imagination is more engaged actively listening than when we passively view. And we can become very passive when we’re screen exhausted.

Some neuroscience research has confirmed that when our imaginations are active they can become more emotionally stimulated. Scientists have interpreted this as an indicator that the audio content requires active imagination on the part of the listener.

One further piece of research becomes critical here, suggesting that imagination runs hand in hand with motivation. According to this view, imagination can make us more goal directed, more likely to get things done. Zoom fatigue can have the opposite effect. The imaginative process inherent in the audio call increases the likelihood that we’ll make good on our intentions.

If this is true – and there needs to be more research in the problem – it will certainly be time to become more conscious of when and how often we meet on Zoom, for how long and for what purpose.

Try holding some of your work meetings by phone. It might seem strange at first and take a bit of getting used to, but you might just find your meetings are more productive and satisfying. Your imagination might kick into gear and re-fire your motivation. I’m not saying banish all the Zooming, just re-balance your use of audio and screen.

Paul Levy, senior researcher in innovation management, University of Brighton.

The Conversation
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What staring at a screen all day does to your brain and body

Following is a transcript of the video.

It’s 11:00 pm. You should be asleep. But you’re watching a video on your phone. Tomorrow, you’ll wake up and go to work, where you’ll stare at your computer for 8 hours. When you get home, you’ll watch a movie on TV. And if you’re anything like the average American adult, you spend more than 7 hours a day staring at digital screens.

So, what’s all this screen time actually doing to your body and brain? Humans didn’t evolve to stare at bright screens all day. And our eyes are suffering the consequences. An estimated 58% of people who work on computers experience what’s called Computer Vision Syndrome.

It’s a series of symptoms that include:

  • eyestrain
  • blurred vision
  • headaches
  • and neck and back pain

And long-term, this amount of screen time could be damaging our vision permanently. Since 1971, cases of nearsightedness in the US have nearly doubled, which some scientists partly link to increased screen time. And in Asia today, nearly 90 percent of teens and adults are nearsighted. But it’s not just the brightness of our screens that affects us.

It’s also the color. Screens emit a mix of red, green, and blue light – similar colors in sunlight. And over millennia, it was blue wavelengths in sunlight that helped us keep our circadian rhythms in sync with our environment. But since our circadian rhythms are more sensitive to blue light than any others,

A problem occurs when we use our screens at night. Typically, when the sun sets, we produce the hormone melatonin. This hormone regulates our circadian rhythms, helping us feel tired and fall asleep. But many studies have found that blue light from screens can disrupt this process.

For example, in one small study, participants who spent 4 hours reading e-books before bed for 5 nights produced 55% less melatonin than participants who read print books.

What’s more, the e-book readers reported that they:

  • Were more alert before bed
  • Took longer to fall asleep and reach a restorative REM state
  • And were more tired the next morning

But perhaps the most concerning changes we’re starting to see from all this screen time is in kids’ brains. An ongoing study supported by the NIH has found that some pre-teens who clocked over 7 hours a day on screens had differences in a part of their brains called the cortex. That’s the region responsible for processing information from our five senses.

Usually, our cortex gets thinner as we mature. But these kids had thinner cortices earlier than other kids who spent less time on screens. Scientists aren’t sure what this could mean for how the kids learn and behave later in life. But the same data also showed that kids who spent more than 2 hours a day on screens scored lower on thinking and language skill tests.

To be clear, the NIH data can’t confirm if more time spent staring at screens causes these effects. But they’ll have a better idea of any links as they continue to follow and study these kids over the next decade. It’s no doubt that screens have changed the way we communicate. But only time will tell what other changes are on the horizon for humankind.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This video was originally published in January 2019.

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I overcame the fear and stigma of giving my kid extra screen time during the pandemic. Here’s why he’s better off for it.

Melissa Petro
Petro with her husband and kids.

  • Experts used to urge parents to only allow up to one hour of screen time a day for kids.
  • As a working mom, Melissa Petro says she overcame the stigma that allowing extra screen time made her a bad parent.
  • She says more parents and experts are softening their stances on screen time — and many kids are happier for it.
  • Visit the Business section of Insider for more stories.

After going through a very public and humiliating job loss in my early 30s, I considered myself impervious to other people’s opinions. Then at 38 years old I became a mom, and I got a sort of shock. When it came to parenting, I learned, everyone has an opinion on everything, from breast versus bottle to how much personal information to post about your kids online (if any), to whether or not it’s traumatic to let a baby “cry it out.” 

But one of the greatest issues up for debate, I learned, was screen time. 

In 2017, the year my son was born, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) was recommending no screen time for children younger than 18 months and up to one supervised hour of screen time a day for kids ages 18 to 24. Children over the age of two were also encouraged to limit their screen time to under an hour. 

For the most part, the parents I knew followed these recommendations – or felt guilty when they didn’t.

But since the COVID-19 pandemic shuttered childcare centers and schools, kids are spending more time than ever in front of their devices, and experts are walking back their super strict screen time guidelines and even hyping the benefits

The news that screen time may not be as evil as once feared – and could even be beneficial – comes as no surprise to my husband and me. Like most parents, we were initially ambivalent about giving our young toddler an iPad or setting the baby up in front of the TV. But for some time – and well, before a pandemic forced our hand – we came around to the idea of allowing our young children to explore technology, and began recognizing the benefits immediately.

These days, screen time is a given. But not so long ago, it was taboo.

Melissa Petro kids
The author’s kids.

As a consequence of the pandemic, children’s screen time has soared, and attitudes towards the technology has softened, and so it feels almost nostalgic to remember a time when it was taken for granted that any screen time at all (let alone too much) would have a deleterious effect on our kids.

In Facebook mom groups I gravitated to as a first time mom, anti-screen time screeds were an almost daily occurrence. Moms posted dubiously sourced articles suggesting screens were to blame for a host of physical and mental health issues, everything from obesity and eye strain to anxiety, depression, and even suicide.

Most moms kept vigilant track of the amount of time their kids spent in front of smartphones, computers, television, or video game consoles, while others banned devices entirely.

While the moms encouraged one another to follow experts’ ‘better safe than sorry’ approach, they were never harsh.

When every so often, someone would guiltily confess how she occasionally permitted a little Daniel Tiger in the background while she prepared dinner – or that she handed her kid a tablet so that she could shower in peace – other moms would jump in to reassure her and confess their own transgressions.

Rarely would a mom admit how she personally relied on screens as a habit, but I saw them out in the world. In the grocery store and on the subway, parents occupied their babies in strollers with smartphones. Toddlers, obviously familiar with the technology, huddled over glowing tablets in restaurants while their parents enjoyed a quiet meal. 

Even less visible were the parents who – without reliable, affordable childcare – felt no choice but to put their children in front of a screen while they attended to professional responsibilities. 

Long before COVID-19 shuttered daycares and in-person learning, there have been moms who couldn’t afford to eschew screens.

Melissa Petro
Family lunchtime.

From the beginning, it was our instinct that screens weren’t all “bad” – after all, both my husband and I both work in digital media. Still, debates over screen time made me doubt my maternal instincts, and I probably wouldn’t have given our son a tablet if it hadn’t become necessary.

My son Oscar was still in his mini crib when we introduced him to Bi mmi Boo, one of countless of educational apps designed specifically for young kids. By then, balancing motherhood and a career had proved impossible. 

It wasn’t enough to work while my baby napped. My career was rapidly tanking, and I was not making ends meet. The apartment was a disaster. I was exhausted, burnt out, and depressed.

Within no time, our son had figured out the basic mechanics, navigating from the app to the home screen and back again. He smiled in delight as he figured out how to make the cartoon bear dance. 

Screen time was more than convenient – it was clearly beneficial to my son.

From then on, Oscar explored his tablet independently for at least an hour or two every day. While I completed assignments or did housework, my son learned his letters, numbers, colors, and shapes. Within weeks, Oscar was navigating the internet like a pro, having fun and hitting developmental milestones – not in spite of technology, but because of it.

By the time the COVID crisis began affecting us last March, my son’s tablet had become just another toy. He masters educational games just as fast as we download them, and explores content and develops interests free from my influence. Sure, in the beginning he got sucked into a lot of videos of tires crushing stuff. But eventually, he’d gravitated towards videos about horses, and had learned the names for at least two dozen construction vehicles (two subjects I might not have thought to introduce on my own). 

All the while, he’s grown increasingly competent and confident with technology. My husband and I joke that, at three years old, he is already more tech savvy than we are. Not surprising, given that before his first birthday, he’d already taught himself how to skip ads.

Thanks to COVID-19, it’s no longer a scarlet letter to say your kid gets a little – or even a lot – of screen time in a day.

Melissa Petro
Screen time with dad.

In the past year, some experts have revised their positions on screen time, walking back warning and offering practical advice as opposed to arbitrary time limits. One expert who literally wrote a book about setting screen time limits went so far as to apologize for being so out of touch. 

It’s a step in the right direction and undoubtedly a relief for parents who agonize. Still, I can’t help but feel dismayed, and more than a little vindicated. As other writers have articulated, screen time limit ‘rules’ were rooted in classism and racism, and I agree with those who declared it a feminist issue.

Using screens to help my household to function didn’t make me a negligent mother – nor did it make my kid “moody, crazy, and lazy“, as one particularly offensive headline suggested. 

Instead, introducing technology early was an act of resourcefulness. As for my son: When he’s not building Lego boats, drawing underwater scenes, or pretending to be a oceanographer, he’s usually online, researching everything there is to learn about fish, oceans, and boats. Typical toddler obsessions aside, he’s well-rounded and intelligent, creative, clever, and kind.  

I’m not immune to mom shame, but it doesn’t control me like it used to. And when it comes to screens, I’m clear: My kid’s alright – and even after loads and loads of screen time, your kid will be alright, too.

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