Six days into stay-at-home orders in New York City, the epicenter of the novel coronavirus pandemic in the U.S., a third-grade class for Alex Freidus’s 8-year-old son started with an unusual step: a click.
Her son’s classmates and teacher appeared on the screen, smiling and waving and staring at things outside the frame. The morning group check-in, hosted on the popular virtual conferencing tool Zoom, was an attempt to approximate the social interaction the children were used to enjoying in person. During the session, which lasted just under an hour, the teacher asked the students about how they were feeling and what they had been up to at home. Every child had the opportunity to speak. Then the teacher laid out virtual lesson plans for the rest of the week.
Later that night, at the dinner table, Friedus mentioned to her son that virtual sessions would be the new routine. He frowned. “I do not like that,” he said. “It’s hard. And I don’t want to see my friends if I can’t play with them.”
In the weeks since, Freidus has negotiated with her son to get him to engage with the lessons she thinks are most critical for him. (He’s strong in math, for example, so she doesn’t push him to tune into every math lesson.) But he’s only 8. He hasn’t fully learned how to type or use a computer mouse, and she has always instilled in him that her laptop is off-limits. Online learning itself is a learning curve for him, which adds to the frustration of missing his friends.
Freidus’s son’s lamentations may ring just as true for adults starved of social interaction, let alone those who are less tech-savvy, during the pandemic. People who comply with stay-at-home orders are sacrificing in-person connection for personal and public health. For many, this has meant a transition to seemingly endless video calls.
The data already prove it out, at least for those in white-collar tech jobs: Workers are spending 29% more time in team meetings and 24% more time in one-on-one meetings than they were before the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Clockwise, the maker of a calendar assistant that optimizes employees’ work schedules. In a completely work-from-home environment, colleagues can’t drop by each other’s desks or have unplanned watercooler conversations.
Countless people have decried newfound “Zoom hangovers” or “Zoom fatigue,” calling upon experts to figure out what it is about video calls that drains us. Explanations run the gamut, as this Axios article concisely summarizes: It’s not a natural way to have a conversation. It’s difficult to make eye contact. We can see ourselves, which is distracting. Every conversation takes place in the same context—on the same screen. All of this, and more, is difficult for our brains to process.
While all of these very real phenomena are at play, that doesn’t mean that we should place undue blame on technology for the stress the pandemic has wrought, says Microsoft researcher Nancy Baym.
“Anything that’s different, even if you like it, requires some amount of adjustment,” says Baym, who has been studying online interaction since the early 1990s and is the author of Personal Connections in the Digital Age and Twitter: A Biography, among other works. “I imagine that if we keep this up over time,” she says of virtual meetings amid social distancing, “the kinds of complaints that people have will change.”
That doesn’t mean people will be onboard once they overcome the learning curve. Olga Garcia-Kaplan, a mother of three and student data privacy advocate, says that after more than a month of school via Zoom, her 12-year-old daughter’s tolerance for learning via the medium has plummeted. She and many classmates now log on with their cameras off.
“Some of them are seeing it as an invasive medium,” Garcia-Kaplan says. “It’s a lot for them to deal with, from a privacy perspective: ‘Why do I have to show my teacher my home?’ and ‘I don’t want kids who I’m not necessarily friends with to see my home, either.’”
Garcia-Kaplan’s daughter has also expressed unwillingness to discuss “how quarantine is going” with her teacher and classmates. Her reluctance to open up in that way, day after day, indicates she’s fed up with more than just the video calls.
“There’s this idea that we’re all just going to hop onto technology and get to work, and we won’t be tired,” Baym says, “Or we’re going to hop onto technology and get to work, and if we’re tired, it’s because of the technology, rather than because the world is in crisis.”
The emotional burden of the pandemic (if not the recent protests about racism and police brutality following the death of George Floyd) may make it challenging or impossible for someone to call into meetings and classes. (So may the economic one, in the case of households that don’t have Internet connections or other digital resources.) That’s why Freidus says it’s important for people in a privileged position to speak up about potential limitations—provided they feel secure in doing so without fear of recourse.
For her part, Freidus has met with her son’s teacher and school administrators to discuss the challenges students have had adapting to the virtual classroom. She herself is a former teacher, now a professor at Seton Hall University in the department of Education Leadership Management and Policy.
“I am comfortable treating some of this work as optional, but I know all families don’t feel comfortable doing that, or don’t feel confident assessing what’s most important,” Freidus says. “I think that if enough families share their stories, schools will be better informed in terms of thinking about what’s happening for kids, what the challenges are, and how they can best support the range of situations going on.”
The same could be said for workplaces. Some employees may feel more empowered than others to point out the caregiving responsibilities they and their colleagues are juggling while working from home.
If the technology is not fundamentally to blame—and inequality, divergent learning styles, and the pandemic itself are—that doesn’t mean people merely should grasp for another convenient scapegoat, Freidus warns.
“I also think that we cannot expect schools, or individualized instruction, or whatever extraordinary efforts that some educators can make, to solve the problem of a worldwide crisis,” Freidus says. “Part of it is saying: There is loss, and there is going to be loss.”
The pandemic is forcing part of society to engage in a new experiment—but it’s going to take real, longitudinal research to tease out how people respond to using videoconferencing tools on a sustained basis, Baym says. Right now, feelings about abrupt societal change are muddling feelings about virtually everything else.
“I would be really wary of taking any findings about how people feel about these tools right now and generalizing to how they’re going to feel about them in the future,” Baym says. “What I see is always a process of trying to make these technologies work for us as best they can, because we yearn to be in communication with one another.”