Staring at yourself on Zoom has serious mental health consequences

Video calls often show people an image of themselves.

Video calls often show people an image of themselves. SDI Productions/E+ via Getty Images

Mirrors, selfies and knowing other people are looking at you all cause people to think of themselves as objects. Video calls are all three rolled into one—and likely worsen the harms of self-objectification, especially for women.

In the past few years, people across the world have spent more time on video chat programs like Zoom and FaceTime than ever before. These applications mimic in-person encounters by allowing users to see the people they are communicating with. But unlike in-person communications, these programs often also show users a video of themselves. Instead of catching the occasional glimpse of themselves in a mirror, now people are looking at themselves for hours a day.

We are psychologists who study society’s focus on women’s appearance and the consequences of this constant scrutiny. We were immediately fascinated by the new dynamic created by the Zoom world. While critical for public safety during the pandemic, we believe that virtual classes, meetings and the like lead to a continuous focus on one’s own appearance – something research suggests is harmful to mental health, especially for women.

Objectification and self-objectification

Objectification is a bit of a buzzword, but the meaning is rather literal: being seen or treated as an object. This often comes in the form of sexual objectification, where bodies and body parts are seen as separate from the person to which they are attached. Advertisements are rife with examples of this, where close-ups of certain body parts are often shown to help market a product, such as a bottle of cologne graphically nestled between a woman’s breasts.

Not surprisingly, women’s bodies are treated as objects way more often than men’s. Because women and girls are socialized in a culture that prioritizes their appearance, they internalize the idea that they are objects. Consequently, women self-objectify, treating themselves as objects to be looked at.

Researchers investigate self-objectification in experimental studies by having study participants focus on their appearance and then measure cognitive, emotional, behavioral or physiological outcomes. Research has shown that being near a mirror, taking a picture of oneself and feeling that one’s appearance is being evaluated by others all increase self-objectification. When you log in to a virtual meeting, you are essentially doing all of these things at once.

Two female manikins in a window.
Self-objectification is tied to many mental and physical health issues, and women are more susceptible to these harms. Vicente Méndez/Moment via Getty Images

What does self-objectification do?

Thinking of yourself as an object can lead to changes in a person’s behavior and physical awareness, and has also been shown to negatively affect mental health in a number of ways. While these experiences with self-objectification lead both women and men to focus on their appearance, women tend to face many more negative consequences.

Research suggests that experiencing self-objectification is cognitively taxing for women. In a seminal study done in 1998, researchers showed that when women put on a new swimsuit and viewed themselves in a mirror, the self-objectification this produced caused women to perform poorly on math problems. Men’s math performance was not affected by this objectifying experience.

Further, experiencing objectification has behavioral and physiological consequences. In the aforementioned study, trying on a swimsuit produced feelings of shame among women, which in turn led to restrained eating. Other research has shown that when women think of themselves as objects, they speak less in mixed gender groups.

Self-objectification also leads women to, in a sense, distance themselves from their own bodies. This can cause worse motor performance as well as difficulty recognizing one’s own emotional and bodily states. One study showed that girls who were prone to self-objectification were less physically coordinated than girls who showed less self-objectification.

A woman in a t-shirt at night at a party.
Women who self-objectify are less likely to say they feel cold when wearing light clothing at night. Ika84/E+ via Getty Images

In a paper we published in 2021, our team showed that women who think of themselves as objects have difficulty recognizing their own body temperature. To test this, we asked women how cold they felt while standing outside nightclubs and bars on chilly nights. We found that the more a woman was focused on her appearance, the less connection there was between the amount of clothing she was wearing and how cold she felt.

In some women, self-objectification can become the default way of thinking of themselves and navigating the world. High levels of this self-objectification can be associated with mental health consequences, including disordered eating, increased anxiety over one’s appearance and depression.

Evidence of harm and how to reduce it

While we are not aware of any research directly exploring the connection between video meetings and self-objectification, some recent studies suggest that our concerns are well founded.

One study found that the more time women who are focused on their looks spent on video calls, the less satisfied they were with their appearance. Facial dissatisfaction also seems to play a role in Zoom fatigue, with women across all races reporting higher levels of Zoom fatigue than their male counterparts.

For better or worse, the virtualization of daily life is here to stay. One way to reduce the negative effects of endless video meetings is to use the “hide self-view” function during online interactions. This hides your image from yourself but not others.

Turning off self-view is easy to do and may help some people, but many others – including us – feel that this puts them at a disadvantage. This may be because being aware of your appearance has benefits, despite the risk of self-objectification and the harms it brings. A huge body of research shows that looking attractive has tangible social and economic benefits, for women more so than for men. By monitoring your appearance, it is possible to anticipate how you will be evaluated and adjust accordingly. Therefore, we expect that people, especially women, will continue to keep the camera on for the duration of their Zoom calls.

A huge amount of previous research suggests that Zoom calls are a perfect storm for self-objectification and that the harms disproportionately affect women. It seems that the already uneven playing field for women is exacerbated in online social interactions. Any small reprieve from staring at a literal projection of yourself will be a net gain for your well-being, especially for women.

The Conversation

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

This article was published first on The Conversation ("Staring at an image of yourself on Zoom has serious consequences for mental health—especially for women".) 

NEXT STORY: 'Ban the box’ prohibition at federal agencies soon to expand

X
This website uses cookies to enhance user experience and to analyze performance and traffic on our website. We also share information about your use of our site with our social media, advertising and analytics partners. Learn More / Do Not Sell My Personal Information
Accept Cookies
X
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Do Not Sell My Personal Information

When you visit our website, we store cookies on your browser to collect information. The information collected might relate to you, your preferences or your device, and is mostly used to make the site work as you expect it to and to provide a more personalized web experience. However, you can choose not to allow certain types of cookies, which may impact your experience of the site and the services we are able to offer. Click on the different category headings to find out more and change our default settings according to your preference. You cannot opt-out of our First Party Strictly Necessary Cookies as they are deployed in order to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting the cookie banner and remembering your settings, to log into your account, to redirect you when you log out, etc.). For more information about the First and Third Party Cookies used please follow this link.

Allow All Cookies

Manage Consent Preferences

Strictly Necessary Cookies - Always Active

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data, Targeting & Social Media Cookies

Under the California Consumer Privacy Act, you have the right to opt-out of the sale of your personal information to third parties. These cookies collect information for analytics and to personalize your experience with targeted ads. You may exercise your right to opt out of the sale of personal information by using this toggle switch. If you opt out we will not be able to offer you personalised ads and will not hand over your personal information to any third parties. Additionally, you may contact our legal department for further clarification about your rights as a California consumer by using this Exercise My Rights link

If you have enabled privacy controls on your browser (such as a plugin), we have to take that as a valid request to opt-out. Therefore we would not be able to track your activity through the web. This may affect our ability to personalize ads according to your preferences.

Targeting cookies may be set through our site by our advertising partners. They may be used by those companies to build a profile of your interests and show you relevant adverts on other sites. They do not store directly personal information, but are based on uniquely identifying your browser and internet device. If you do not allow these cookies, you will experience less targeted advertising.

Social media cookies are set by a range of social media services that we have added to the site to enable you to share our content with your friends and networks. They are capable of tracking your browser across other sites and building up a profile of your interests. This may impact the content and messages you see on other websites you visit. If you do not allow these cookies you may not be able to use or see these sharing tools.

If you want to opt out of all of our lead reports and lists, please submit a privacy request at our Do Not Sell page.

Save Settings
Cookie Preferences Cookie List

Cookie List

A cookie is a small piece of data (text file) that a website – when visited by a user – asks your browser to store on your device in order to remember information about you, such as your language preference or login information. Those cookies are set by us and called first-party cookies. We also use third-party cookies – which are cookies from a domain different than the domain of the website you are visiting – for our advertising and marketing efforts. More specifically, we use cookies and other tracking technologies for the following purposes:

Strictly Necessary Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Functional Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Performance Cookies

We do not allow you to opt-out of our certain cookies, as they are necessary to ensure the proper functioning of our website (such as prompting our cookie banner and remembering your privacy choices) and/or to monitor site performance. These cookies are not used in a way that constitutes a “sale” of your data under the CCPA. You can set your browser to block or alert you about these cookies, but some parts of the site will not work as intended if you do so. You can usually find these settings in the Options or Preferences menu of your browser. Visit www.allaboutcookies.org to learn more.

Sale of Personal Data

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Social Media Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.

Targeting Cookies

We also use cookies to personalize your experience on our websites, including by determining the most relevant content and advertisements to show you, and to monitor site traffic and performance, so that we may improve our websites and your experience. You may opt out of our use of such cookies (and the associated “sale” of your Personal Information) by using this toggle switch. You will still see some advertising, regardless of your selection. Because we do not track you across different devices, browsers and GEMG properties, your selection will take effect only on this browser, this device and this website.