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I can’t stop staring at my own face on Zoom

We’re on video chat all day long. Here’s what it’s doing to our brains.

By Jenni Gritters

The other day, my social schedule was packed. At 10 a.m., I had a Google Hangout meeting with my editor. At noon, I met some childhood friends on Zoom for a virtual lunch date. At 3 p.m., I called my parents on FaceTime so they could see my 4-month-old son. At 5 p.m., I cracked a beer during virtual happy hour with a friend who lives a mile away. And at 7 p.m., when my husband was leaving his job at the local hospital, I FaceTimed him so he could say goodnight to the baby.

After all that talking, I crawled into bed feeling mentally exhausted, even though I hadn’t seen anyone besides my son in person. I’d spent over four hours on video calls; that’s 240 minutes spent looking at other people on camera — and looking at my own face on the screen. My face hurt from smiling. Was I enjoying people’s company that much more, or — crap — was I just trying to look more presentable and interested because I could see my own reactions on the screen? And was everyone else experiencing this same, odd phenomenon of fixating on their own faces while video chatting, too?

Social distancing measures to combat the spread of the novel coronavirus have made video chatting more essential than ever before. For many of us, it’s the only form of social support we have. Experts say we should take advantage of it. 

“I think is a valuable resource,” says Paul Gebben, a psychotherapist from the Seattle area who specializes in telemedicine. “I can see somebody’s eyebrow go up. I can see people’s reactions to things. I don’t see any of that in a phone call! It’s all about the non-verbals.”

Seeing my straight-out-of-the-shower hair and my makeup-less face on the screen stresses me out.

But if we have to spend the next few months in social isolation, only connecting via screens, what will that do to us psychologically? Will we become more conceited? More apt to perform? More self-critical? Social scientists are just starting to dive into those questions, but according to experts, seeing ourselves in the corner of a screen is a lot like looking in a “digital mirror.” If you like yourself, you’ll probably feel even more positive if you see your face on the screen every day. But if you’re self-critical, that tendency will come out, too, especially during this particularly odd and difficult time.

Every afternoon, my son FaceTimes with his grandparents. They’ve had to miss things like his first laugh and his newly-garbled babbles, so these sessions are important for building relationships and keeping everyone up-to-date. And compared with other forms of screen time, it’s relatively benign. Several studies show that for kids, video chatting doesn’t seem to have the same negative effects as using other online tools. For kids and adults, responsive conversations aren’t linked to the negative outcomes of mindlessly scrolling through Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook (which can cause increased anxiety and worsened sleep). 

But lately, I find myself turning the camera more and more in the direction of my son. Seeing my straight-out-of-the-shower hair and my makeup-less face on the screen stresses me out. I’m letting people visually into my home, a place where I’m not usually concerned about how I look. The result, for me at least, seems to be self-criticism. 

Gebben has experienced this as well. “When I see people in those Brady Bunch tiles, I am checking my own face,” he says. “I’m like, ‘you’ve had that quizzical look on your face a while. Relax your face.’ Whether it’s a small group chat or with family, I consider how I’m coming across.” 

There’s research behind this editing behavior: In a 2013 study published in the Journal of Psychosocial Research on Cyberspace, researchers found that video chats promoted bonding between friends, much like in-person interactions. But there was one big difference between the two: The friendship-oriented behaviors that happen automatically in-person didn’t happen at all over video. Researchers call these “nonconscious, automatic affiliation cues,” and their findings suggest that we’re all a bit more muted, emotionally and physically, when we communicate through a screen.

There may also be an element of distraction in getting more familiar with a new mode of conversation (and our own personal hang-ups). Gebben notes that we’re not used to encountering our own images this frequently; while it’s bizarre, it could start to feel more normal as time passes.

And while psychological studies have yet to delve into this specific, self-reflective element of video chatting, researchers have spent time studying what happens when you look in a mirror for a long period of time. And that depends largely on your initial perceptions of your body. People who have body dysmorphic disorder, a psychiatric diagnosis that affects between 1.7 and 2.9 percent of the general population and involves being excessively preoccupied with real or imagined defects and flaws, are more likely to look in the mirror and think negatively about themselves. These people described mirrors as “controlling, imprisoning, and disempowering forces” that had a “paralyzing effect” on their lives. For them, and for others who struggle with psychiatric conditions, video chatting may feel traumatizing.

Even if you don’t struggle with these disorders, video chats can still trigger a less-intense — but still-noticeable — stress response. Whatever you’re dealing with emotionally could intensify when you’re faced with your own image on camera. “If you have anxiety, or you’re very self-critical, you’ll likely feel those symptoms activated,” says Dana Rose Garfin, a faculty member at the Sue & Bill Gross School of Nursing.

Plus, noticing our pathological tendencies from an outside perspective, which happens when you see yourself more often, can actually exacerbate them. When I asked Gebben about my people-pleasing tendencies to smile excessively and nod enthusiastically during video chats, he suggested that my instincts might be heightened by seeing myself.

“From an evolutionary perspective, we want to put our best foot forward to be part of the group,” says Garfin. “It’s natural for us to look at ourselves [on screen] as a form of self-monitoring.” 

I was familiar with this feeling before the lockdown. At my first job, our all-staff calls took place on Zoom — sometimes with more than 100 people in attendance. As I scrolled through people’s images on the grid, I remember thinking: He has a better desk setup. Her lighting is so great! Look at her husband working in the background. If someone else looked extremely put-together, I’d fiddle with my hair for the rest of the video call, to make sure I looked as professional as possible.

This social comparison behavior happens on other online platforms, too; it’s why you might feel elated when you scroll Instagram and realize that some aspect of your life is better than someone else’s, but why you end up feeling like crap after a long session of scrolling through a fitness influencer’s perfectly crafted photos. Large-group video chats likely ignite this same self-critical, comparative behavior.

So what can you do if staring at yourself on a video screen can prompt negative feelings and bad habits? Gebben suggests fiddling with your on-screen setup as a good place to start. If there’s a way to minimize your own face, it might be worth doing so. In the HIPAA-compliant telemedicine program he uses for his sessions, his image appears in the bottom corner of the screen, rather than the top or in a grid. That position that may make it easier to ignore.

He also uses sticky notes to block out distractions in his clients’ backgrounds, so he can focus on connecting — a good way, perhaps, to avoid spiraling over a colleague’s perfectly-appointed bookcase. 

Also, since there’s that added element of distraction in video chats, it’s worth taking extra care to maintain that focus on your conversation partner, as you would during an in-person interaction. What are they wearing? How are they feeling? What emotions do you see etched across their face?

“People feel good when they’re trying to help other people,” Garfin says. “It’s helpful to reach out to others to give support and receive it. That can give more meaning to the situation, too.”

She suggests asking open-ended questions about how your conversation partner is faring during quarantine, or how their day was. In a group chat setting, attempt to draw out the quieter members by saying their names or directing questions at them. When you connect, really try to connect in the absence of physical touch.

For added peace of mind, applications like Zoom also offer tools to help you adjust what you see of yourself. Zoom’s “touch up my image” feature applies a light filter to your face, and you can now add your own background if you want to block out that pile of laundry behind you. Columns about how to improve the lighting and audio of your video chat also abound.

For my part, I now attempt to hide my image in the bottom corner of the screen as often as possible; during a virtual therapy session last week, I even covered the image of my face on the screen with a sticky note. During large-group Zoom calls, I switch to speaker view so I can focus on the person who’s talking instead of my own bad hair day.

Some research backs up the benefits of positive self-talk, so I’ve been working on self-compassion, too, mentally saying nice things when I see myself — a bit disheveled but still functioning fairly well — on that video chat screen. This is how I always looked, anyway. And maybe quarantine is the perfect time to embrace that unedited image.

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Jenni Gritters is a writer based in Seattle.


Illustration by Angela Pyne/images via iStock


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