E-xhausted: Why are we getting digital fatigue in lockdown?

Humans are not built to communicate online

Richard Wolman
4 min readApr 22, 2020

Co-authored with Dr Chris Merritt

“I have three invitations for lunch on Skype… two video call dinners on WhatsApp…. And a happy hour on Microsoft Teams… My quarantine diary’s a mess,” Italian comedian Paolo Camilli tells his friend in a recent video. “Shall we arrange something for the next end of the world?” A lot of us on Covid-19 lockdown might relate to this.

As the pandemic spread, those fortunate enough to have access to the tech saw our social, work and educational lives go almost entirely online. The human need to stay connected in isolation has meant more time on screens — particularly with video calls — than ever before.

It should be helping us cope. But with fears for our health, jobs and even food supply already high, it turns out that the endless video calls are not reducing our stress levels. Quite the opposite. The fact that there is even a term for this — ‘Zoom fatigue’, referencing most people’s conferencing app of choice — is a sign that many of us have had enough.

Why are we already fed up with digital contact? And why do we crave being face to face so badly?

You’re not busy, are you?

Part of this digital stress lies in the lifestyle change imposed by Covid-19. For those working remotely, the boundaries between our work and personal lives are now blurred. There’s an expectation that we’re all available, all the time, and it’s not ok to say no to invitations. In fact, if you’re busy, well, that’s just weird. What else are you doing?

Managers want to show they care, and employees want to show they’re not just working out, drinking or gaming on company time. So, we schedule video calls from nine to five. And, as soon as that’s over, we move straight into Zooming and Skyping with family and friends. It’s hard to switch off and relax, particularly when the main topic of conversation is a highly infectious disease.

Then there’s the physical discomfort of sitting at that kitchen table for long periods, and the frustration of inevitable technical difficulties. But that’s not all.

Something’s missing

Video calls may seem like the next best thing to face-to-face contact, but we can easily forget how different they are to meeting offline. We’re usually presented with a headshot, giving us a ‘hyper-focus’ on facial expression while we miss almost every other bit of body language. This makes us more likely to over-interpret — and mis-interpret — small gestures, like a yawn or a raised eyebrow.

At the same time, we’re presented with a thumbnail of our own face, which continually distracts us with a level of self-focus we don’t have in face-to-face socialising. We aren’t just monitoring other people’s faces and movements; we’re watching our own.

Attending to many information sources while resisting the temptation to constantly monitor your own face on a video call can be very tiring

Should our resting faces be a smile, or is that too fake? How will others be judging how we look right now? Much has been written on how to optimise lighting, camera angles and makeup to avoid the dreaded video-call ‘gargoyle’ face. Entrepreneurs are even selling special products for it. But the bottom line is, if you can see yourself, however you look, it’s hard to stop checking.

Then there’s our backdrops — distractions in our own homes that may not be present if we were in a regular social or work meeting. Kids, partners, pets, appliances, deliveries — all of it hijacking our attention as we shift from one interruption to another (while also checking our own image every few seconds, of course). Research into the brain tells us that’s really exhausting.

Put all this anxiety, frustration and stress together, and you have a pretty good recipe for ‘digital’ fatigue.

What’s the problem?

Put simply, humans are not well-adapted to communicate digitally. We interact best face to face, when we can use all our senses to focus on the whole person. Being with others gives us a special brain response which we can’t get online, because we need to be close to each other to experience it. There’s a buzz to being in a crowd which even the largest Zoom call can’t replicate, because it comes from being together, physically, in the same place.

Let’s use lockdown as a chance to realise how important it is to be face to face, rather than living through our digital devices. We’ve been interacting online more and more for years, without really noticing what we’ve been missing. ‘Zoom fatigue’ shows us more clearly than ever how bad this can be for our wellbeing.

When restrictions have eased and the excitement of being together again has worn off, let’s not forget that we were built for face-to-face contact. Let’s leave e-xhaustion behind with Covid-19.



Richard Wolman

Digital Humanist and behavioural psychologist. Here to debate how we make sure humanity is the central consideration for any new technology