Having Camera On During Online Classes Increases Social Appearance Anxiety

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Three experiments on university students and young people showed that having one’s camera turned on during online classes increased social appearance anxiety and decreased learning. Participants who had a chance to view themselves on screen reported even higher social appearance anxiety. The study was published in Applied Cognitive Psychology.

In early 2020, lockdowns aiming to prevent the spread of COVID-19 began in many countries. Schools were closed and the need arose to find a way to resume teaching activities under these new conditions. The need for interaction between students and teachers was in stark contrast with the requirement to maintain physical distance from other people in order to prevent the spread of respiratory diseases, COVID-19 above all else. Online video platforms, such as Zoom, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams and others looked like ideal solutions.

However, a unique feature of these new online learning platforms is the ability to view oneself on screen using the video camera and the self-view option during lectures. Some preliminary studies indicated that this option to view oneself during lectures might increase social appearance anxiety of students. Social appearance anxiety is the fear that one will be negatively evaluated by others because of the way one looks i.e., that others will not like how one looks.

During in-person lectures, students are typically focused on the instructor. When the instructor is not lecturing, students typically engage with each other. Although they may be aware that others are viewing them, students are rarely able to see how others see them. However, online video platforms, typically have the self-view turned on (i.e. showing one’s own picture as captured by the camera) by default. In addition, engaging with other students during pauses in the lecture is not possible without starting a separate session as any talk would be directed to everyone equally. Self-view option, on the other hand provides the student with a chance to continuously inspect his/her looks, hair and other elements of appearance.

Study author Ingrid S. Tien and her colleagues wanted to test whether students who keep their cameras on during lectures would report greater anxiety. “I was an undergraduate student at the time, and was required to be on Zoom for 8-10 hours a day, as a result of the pandemic – so the salience of the effects of Zoom was strong and sudden,” explained Tien, a PhD student in human development and Psychology at the University of California, Los Angeles.

“I had also been invested in the literature about body image dissatisfaction and appearance anxiety, from very minor appearance reminders (e.g. a small mirror on your desk), and heard my friends talking about how they struggled to focus in class as they were fixated on their appearance most of the time. After discussing with my graduate student mentor, Megan Imundo, we decided to turn that interest into an experimental investigation of the effects of appearance anxiety on learning.”

Tien and her colleagues conducted 3 experiments.

In the first experiment, 171 undergraduate students (120 female) attended a 15-minute online lecture on Russian fairy tales. They were randomly assigned to either have their camera on or off during the lecture. After the lecture, participants were instructed to turn off their cameras and complete an assessment of anxiety (the State Trait Anxiety Inventory) and a test examining how much of the lecture they memorized. They also rated their general day-to-day anxiety, and provided judgements on how much they learned in the lecture and about their experiences of online learning. Participants underwent this procedure in groups of 8 to 10.

The second experiment was the same as the first one with the difference that groups were now 30 to 40 participants. A total of 124 individuals participated in the second experiment.

In the third experiment, the researchers wanted to explore whether the observed effects are the consequence of just the camera being turned on or of the self-view option i.e., whether having a camera on, but without one’s own picture being shown on the screen would produce a difference. The researchers randomly assigned 224 participants to one of the three conditions – camera off, camera on but without self-view, and camera on with self-view. Participants completed the procedure that was similar to those from the previous experiments in groups of 10 to 25. After that, they completed an assessment of social appearance anxiety.

The study authors conducted statistical analysis to test the assumption that whether camera was on or off during lecture affected anxiety of the student, which in turn affected scores on the test of knowledge (about the lecture). Results showed no such effects. The anxiety of students was not affected by whether their camera was on or off and neither were the scores on the knowledge test. There was also no link between anxiety and score on the test. Results of the second experiment were the same. However, these two experiments assessed general anxiety.

The third experiment showed that viewing conditions i.e. whether the student had his/her camera off or on affected social appearance anxiety. The statistical model showed that social appearance anxiety mediated the performance on the knowledge test. Higher levels of social appearance anxiety were linked to lower scores on the knowledge test. This effect was found regardless of whether the self-view option was on or off. However, the effect on social appearance anxiety was larger when the self-view option was on.

In other words, the study found that the viewing condition had an indirect impact on test performance due to appearance anxiety. The camera-on/self-view-on condition had a greater negative impact on learning than the camera-on/self-view-off condition because it increased anxiety levels more.

“It is very valid to feel stressed or anxious from the general format of Zoom,” Tien told PsyPost. “Try to limit screen-time by looking away for 20 seconds every 20 minutes, and use the “hide self-view” feature of Zoom to prevent the effects of appearance anxiety.”

The researchers found no evidence that the results differed based on gender.

“Considering the vast literature citing high rates of appearance anxiety in those who identify as women, it was very surprising that we did not find a significant difference by gender,” Tien noted. “This, to me, means that everyone is impacted by the effects of appearance anxiety from Zoom and the accompanying Zoom Fatigue.”

The study provides valuable insight into psychological dynamics of online teaching sessions. However, it also has limitations that need to be taken into account. Notably, all participants were students and most of them were female. Additionally, experiments were carried out in setting and groups novel to students and on a topic that is not part of their regular education contents. The effect might also not persist when students become more familiar with the group or the content of teaching sessions.

“This study was conducted during peak pandemic time, or what others would call ‘COVID-year’ – during the 2020-2021 school year,” Tien said. “This was also a short, 15 minute lecture. The long term impacts of Zoom Fatigue and appearance anxiety, as well as the impact on overall courses, likely need to be examined – now that we are a couple of years out from the start of the pandemic.”

The study, “Viewing oneself during synchronous online learning increases appearance anxiety and decreases memory for lecture content”, was authored by Ingrid S. Tien, Megan N. Imundo, and Elizabeth Ligon Bjork.

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