The camera debate

Turning on cameras in class may come at a cost


Photo courtesy IAPB/VISION 2020 via Creative Commons

In the age of virtual learning, schools are grasping at straws to keep students engaged. Because of the new lack of in person interaction, many are expressing concern about the effectiveness of virtual education. As educators try their best to ensure the best possible outcomes, students are being encouraged, and in some cases required, to keep their web cameras on in class. While many of the benefits are widely discussed, some of the pitfalls of long term camera exposure are brushed under the rug.  

The term “zoom fatigue” has been used to describe the mental exhaustion students are developing by engaging with video conference platforms for extended periods. Dr. Linda Kaye, Senior Lecturer in Psychology explains the phenomenon saying, “video calling platforms will include the user’s own camera view on the call screen. It is likely that this is enhancing our self-awareness to a greater level than usual and therefore resulting in us making additional self-presentation efforts than in face-to-face interactions in the real world.” So rather than focusing on the content at hand, students’ brains are exerting massive amounts of cognitive power towards judging and adjusting the way in which they are presenting themselves socially.  

Aside from seeing their own face, there are also negative effects cognitively in the prolonged consumption of distorted images. An article by The Conversation explains, Online, students are often expected by their teachers to look at the screen for the entire class and stay focused on the video feeds of their classmates. This can result in feelings of prolonged eye contact, which can feel threatening and uncomfortable.” This leads the brain to increase awareness towards self presentation 

The video conference application triggers the brain into believing they are the center of attention, causing students to subconsciously delegate their attention towards themselves rather than the class. The article expands saying, “This discomfort is enhanced by the fact that the faces on the screen are often large and appear very close. This can trigger the body’s “flight or fight” response, leaving students feeling on edge and impairing their concentration.” This fight or flight response thecauses an increase in anxious and stressful reactions within students’ minds.  

While leaving cameras on is proven to have negative effects such as these, there is still a socially beneficial aspect which has led many school administrations to require cameras to stay on. However, most of the benefits are inflicted upon educators rather than students. This is not to say there is no positive attribute to benefiting educators, but rather that it leaves students with little incentive to comply with camera policies, particularly when the disciplinary consequences are unclear or nonexistent.  

Senior Kira Thielen explains, “I prefer to keep my camera off most of the time, but I do not mind having it on if it is required,” and, like many others feel, “Personally, I do not feel that comfortable with my camera on, but it depends on the class.” While she agrees there is an aspect of encouraged attention in having her camera on, she concedes, “It forces me to make sure I am paying attention, but even when I have my camera off I try to pay close attention, so I do not notice any huge benefit.”  

Maybe seeing students faces helps educators adjust their lessons, but at what cost? If there is no way to ensure the blank stares at the screen are engaged in the curriculum and not in their own social presentation, it may be causing more mental harm than good. Every student has different personal preferences and comfortability levels socially which should also be taken into accountHowever, when implementing camera requirements, the consequences are not yet clear as to whether they are more positive than negative.