What is it about Zoom, Google Hangout and other video calls that mean we can't seem to stop looking at ourselves?
The whole point of a video call is that it’s an opportunity to see the other people in that virtual meeting, but somehow we seem to be hardwired to constantly check ourselves out on screen.
Aside from being somewhat unnerving seeing yourself in a way you never normally get to see, new research has revealed this self voyeurism could have a negative impact on our mental health.
A new study, published in the journal Clinical Psychology Science, has found that looking at yourself during an online video call can actually worsen your mood, revealing that online meeting platforms may be exacerbating psychological problems such as anxiety and depression.
Scientists, from the University of Illinois in the US, asked participants to answer questions about their mood before and after the online conversations.
They were told to talk about what they liked and disliked about living in the local community during the chats and to discuss what music they liked.
Participants could see themselves and their conversation partners on a split-screen monitor. Some had an alcoholic drink before talking whereas others had a soft drink.
In general, participants stared at their conversation partners much more than they looked at themselves, but the researchers found significant differences in the amount of time individual participants spent gazing at their own face.
Lead author Talia Ariss, said the findings add to previous studies suggesting that people who focus more on themselves than on what’s around them, especially during conversation, may be susceptible to mood disorders.
“We used eye-tracking technology to examine the relationship between mood, alcohol and attentional focus during virtual social interaction," she says.
“We found that participants who spent more time looking at themselves during the conversation felt worse after the call, even after controlling for pre-interaction negative mood.
“And those who were under the influence of alcohol spent more time looking at themselves.
“The more self-focused a person is, the more likely they are to report feeling emotions that are consistent with things like anxiety and depression.”
Users of online video call platforms increased 30-fold during the pandemic, rising from 10 million in December 2019 to 300 million by April 2020. This surge formed part of the motivation for the researchers to carry out their study.
“The pandemic has yielded a surge in levels of depression and anxiety and, given reports of heightened self-awareness and fatigue during virtual exchange, some have posited a role for virtual interaction in exacerbating such trends,” study authors explain.
“The cool thing about virtual social interactions, especially in platforms like Zoom, is that you can simulate the experience of looking in a mirror,” Ariss adds.
Watch: UK mum has overwhelming reaction to seeing son after almost three years
Adding alcohol in to the experiment and using eye-tracking technology also allowed researchers to explore how mild inebriation affected where people focused their attention.
“In the context of social interactions, there is strong evidence that alcohol acts as a social lubricant among drinkers and has these mood-enhancing properties," she continues.
“This did not hold true, however, in the online conversations, where alcohol consumption corresponded to more self-focus and had none of its typical mood-boosting effects.”
Her colleague Professor Catherine Fairbairn adds: “At this point in the pandemic, many of us have come to the realisation that virtual interactions just aren’t the same as face-to-face.
“A lot of folks are struggling with fatigue and melancholy after a full day of Zoom meetings.
“Our work suggests the self-view offered in many online video platforms might make those interactions more of a slog than they need to be.”
News of Zoom calls impacting our mood comes as it was revealed last year that online video calls could be contributing to something known as “Zoom dysmorphia”.
While many hailed technology for helping us stay connected during the pandemic, turns out staring at a “distorted image on screen” for up to several hours a day caused some to develop “a negative self-perception”.
Scientists from the Massachusetts General Hospital Department of Dermatology sent a survey to more than 100 dermatologists across the US.
Results suggested there was a 56% increase in people seeking cosmetic procedures amid the widespread uptake of video calls, with one 24-year-old patient claiming her double chin “became apparent” while using the technology.
This is not the first time Zoom dysmorphia has been highlighted.
In 2019, some of the same scientists wrote in the journal Facial Plastic Surgery & Aesthetic Medicine “a life disproportionately spent on Zoom may trigger a self-critical comparative response that leads people to rush to their physicians for treatments they may not have considered before months confronting a video screen”.
Experts have also previously spoken of so-called “Snapchat dysmorphia”.
Additional reporting SWNS.