“Last month, global downloads of the apps Zoom, Houseparty and Skype increased more than 100 percent as video conferencing and chats replaced the face-to-face encounters we are all so sorely missing. Their faces arranged in a grid reminiscent of the game show “Hollywood Squares,” people are attending virtual happy hours and birthday parties, holding virtual business meetings, learning in virtual classrooms and having virtual psychotherapy.
But there are reasons to be wary of the technology, beyond the widely reported security and privacy concerns. Psychologists, computer scientists and neuroscientists say the distortions and delays inherent in video communication can end up making you feel isolated, anxious and disconnected (or more than you were already). You might be better off just talking on the phone.
The problem is that the way the video images are digitally encoded and decoded, altered and adjusted, patched and synthesized introduces all kinds of artifacts: blocking, freezing, blurring, jerkiness and out-of-sync audio. These disruptions, some below our conscious awareness, confound perception and scramble subtle social cues. Our brains strain to fill in the gaps and make sense of the disorder, which makes us feel vaguely disturbed, uneasy and tired without quite knowing why.
Jeffrey Golde, an adjunct professor at Columbia Business School, has been teaching his previously in-person leadership class via Zoom for about a month now and he said it’s been strangely wearing. “I’ve noticed, not only in my students, but also in myself, a tendency to flag,” he said. “It gets hard to concentrate on the grid and it’s hard to think in a robust way.”