Jeremy Bailenson: What will change as a result of the pandemic

For Part 2 of the Voices on the Future of Childhood series, we asked experts to take a stab at predicting the future by offering their thoughts on “What will change in the coming months and/or years as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.” 

The coming Zoom fatigue

Jeremy BailensonJeremy Bailenson, PhD, is Thomas More Storke Professor in the Department of Communication at Stanford University and Founding Director of Stanford University’s Virtual Human Interaction Lab

After a month of sheltering in place, Zoom is quickly becoming a daily verb in our homes. There is little doubt the software is increasing social connection, helping us endure this crisis and, in some cases, allowing teachers to deliver instruction to their homebound students.

But many of us are experiencing nonverbal overload. Software like Zoom was designed to do online work, and the tools that increase productivity were not designed for social interaction. In a normal workplace, people rarely engage in long bouts of mutual gaze—that is, looking directly into the eyes of one another. With Zoom, a grid of people stare right at you from the screen for the entire meeting. In an experiment at Stanford, we studied the consequences of “constant gaze.” While productivity increases, people report being very uncomfortable getting stared at for an entire meeting. The brain is particularly attentive to faces, and when we see large ones close up, we interpret them as being close by. Our “fight-or-flight” reflex responds. One study we ran with adults at Stanford showed that when people are exposed to large virtual faces that come close to their own, they literally flinch physically. I believe this is part of the reason Zoom is so exhausting: for every minute we are in Zoom, we have staring faces close by. 

Media causes adaptation. Many of us have seen a young child “swipe” at a picture in a magazine expecting it to change. And just this week, one of my daughters asked me why the characters in Cinderella weren’t standing six feet apart from one another. How will Zoom shape how children socialize in their post-pandemic lives?


See more posts in this series:

Voices on the Future of Childhood

Alan Gershenfeld | Caroline Hu Flexer | David Kleeman | Jeremy Bailenson

Matthew Kam | Michael Rich | Mimi Ito | Warren Buckleitner


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