Video conferencing has become the new norm for school, work, and play, but so many kids and parents are just over it. Luckily, there are ways to cope through the calls.

By Nicole Johnson
May 28, 2020
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Emma Darvick

It is a typical work and school day at my house, which means no less than six Zoom calls. My husband is holed up in the bedroom on a work call trying to avoid the chatter of our four school-age children, while I attempt to find a quiet space to meet with one of my students and another teacher from the primary school where I continue to work remotely. I schedule the Zoom calls on my calendar the way I used to schedule the kids' activities and appointments.

I hear my 7-year-old son's voice carry down the hallway as he describes the book he is reading to his class. But my daughter, his 9-year-old sister, did not join her class call because it serves as a reminder of how much she misses her friends. For her, this new normal is difficult, especially when it comes to staying connected. She is tired of the numerous calls. I get it, because I feel the same way. While video-conferencing platforms are making it easier to stay connected and carry out both distance learning curriculum for our kids and work-related tasks for our jobs, there is a downside. For many of us, navigating this new way of connecting both socially and professionally is exhausting.

There is a new term for this exhaustion known as "Zoom fatigue" and it has garnered significant attention. Zoom fatigue refers to the stress and mental exhaustion that we feel after a prolonged period of video conference use. "Zoom is one of the platforms we use to try and fill the communication void," says Daniel Bober, D.O., chief of the department of psychiatry at Memorial Regional Healthcare System. The problem, says Dr. Bober, is that it's a "poor substitute for face-to-face communication."

There is a rhythm to human communication, explains Dr. Bober, that includes subtle changes in facial expression that we may not think about in person but are lost in translation over Zoom. "These social cues are disrupted and out of sync and as our brain tries to fill in the gaps, we are left feeling anxious and irritable," says Dr. Bober. And while the most common symptom of Zoom fatigue is mental exhaustion, both adults and children may also experience more symptoms. "It's exhausting for the brain and kids and adults end up feeling fatigued, groggy, cranky, and unfocused as a result. Many report both physical and cognitive signs of stress," says Katie Hurley, LCSW, child and adolescent psychotherapist and author of The Happy Kid Handbook and No More Mean Girls.

Zoom calls also require the brain to work harder. "When our kids are learning in a Zoom classroom, the brain has to work constantly to scan and focus," says Hurley. Kids are constantly switching tasks, alternating between listening to teachers, watching teachers, listening to classmates' responses, and trying to prepare their own responses. This is very different from the way the brain responds in an actual classroom. "There it doesn't have to work as hard to process and interpret the conversations," says Hurley.

How to Combat Zoom Fatigue

While Zoom calls are part of the new normal of both working and learning from home, they do not have to cause fatigue or distress. There are several steps we can take to ensure healthy and productive social, academic, and work-related connections. For both adults and children, the ways to combat and manage Zoom fatigue look very similar.

"The best way to help with Zoom fatigue is to decrease time spent on Zoom and space it out. If you know your child has a Zoom class in the morning, for example, don't plan a Zoom meetup with a friend right after," says Hurley.

This same spacing out applies to parents working at home and trying to juggle multiple Zoom calls for themselves and their children. Taking breaks between calls is important for everyone. Even those calls scheduled to socialize, when added onto the calls for work and school, can cause stress. Another option to lessen the demands of a Zoom call is as simple as avoiding the visual stimuli by opting for audio only.

Dr. Bober's recommendation takes this one step further. While face-to-face human contact may sometimes be necessary for work or school, he believes the telephone is a perfect substitute for Zoom. How is a phone call different? "Even with the absence of visual information, there are still tonal variations, the rhythm of speech, and changes in breathing, which allow people to glean information from a telephone call," says Dr. Bober. This allows those on the call to have a greater sense of connection than may be possible with Zoom. And removing the stress of being "watched" and having to "perform" on a Zoom call takes some of the pressure off.

Another suggestion? Don't get so caught up in worrying about socialization, which is another reason we steer our children toward Zoom calls and often engage in them ourselves. Hurley suggests guiding kids toward free play and getting outside frequently. This suggestion is one I apply to my own well-being. For me, walking around my neighborhood has been extremely helpful. My kids also enjoy getting outside and riding their bikes or simply running around in the yard. Going outside also has additional benefits. "Research shows that time spent in green spaces decreases stress and anxiety," says Hurley.

While all these suggestions for preventing Zoom fatigue are important, the most important thing we can do for both our kids and ourselves when dealing with the overwhelming demands of staying connected digitally is to listen. For me, that means being conscious of what my body and brain are telling me. For my kids, it means understanding that sometimes they want to opt out of meetings and instead focus on time alone or running outside in the sunshine. And sometimes, I join them.

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