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Why My Virtual Social Life Is Killing Me

What happens when you reach your Zoom limit?

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Woman With Glass Of Wine Using Tablet To Chat
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My husband’s cousin in Florida mass-texted 15 family members suggesting we schedule weekly Zoom family game nights until quarantine ends. I immediately panicked, broke into a sweat and told my husband that if he agreed to the request, I would go hide in a dark corner and not come out. Those were my exact words, and I meant them.

Turns out, I’m not the only one suffering from Zoom fatigue. I love my husband’s parents, aunts, uncles, cousins and all of their kids. They’re wonderful, sweet people. A virtual game night with them wouldn’t have been a terrible way to pass the time. After all, what else did we have to do? It’s just that, like many people across the country, this request came in April, a time when, after a month of relying on online “happy hours” to sustain me socially, I had reached my Zoom breaking point.

I just didn’t have it in me to stare at a screen, attempt to listen to overlapping conversations, and pretend it was a good substitute for IRL interactions.

In a National Geographic article about Zoom fatigue, Julia Sklar writes, “For some people, the prolonged split in attention creates a perplexing sense of being drained while having accomplished nothing.”

When you’re sitting at an actual table with a group of people (remember that?), you’re engaged, present and energized by the chaos of it all. With Zoom, or any other virtual meeting platform, you can become a passive observer of a conversation that you’re still a part of in ways that you can’t in person (for example, you can’t turn down the volume in real life). I was starting to feel drained by these online experiences, but then again — what would become of my quarantine social life if I banned Zoom altogether?

Zoom, FaceTime, Skype, Houseparty — videoconferencing platforms have been a lifeline for many of us during the coronavirus pandemic. They’ve kept us connected, helped us get in touch with old friends, and allowed us to work or attend school from our couches or kitchen tables or bedrooms.

Early on I had a Zoom “happy hour” with a group of college friends, giving us the first chance in years to be, in a sense, in the same room together. I’ve “seen” people I might keep in touch with via Facebook — but whom I never would have had an actual conversation with if it weren’t for the coronavirus/Zoom equation.

It didn’t take long for the novelty to wear off, though — because, as Sklar writes, “virtual interactions can be extremely hard on the brain." I’ve heard of people pretending that their baby is crying to get out of Zoom calls, or having their school-age kid enter the frame so they can jump off to “help the kid with math homework.”

One friend intentionally sets Zoom work meetings back-to-back, on the same line, so that she can end meetings on time and get them over with, rather than remaining stuck in a virtual Zoom purgatory.

I admit to feeling relief from time to time when the “your 40 minutes is almost up” warning pops up during a Zoom call, because that’s about all I can handle these days. No offense to my friends or family I love — or even to Zoom. It’s just that my brain hurts.

So now that so many of us have reached our Zoom (or Houseparty or Skype or FaceTime) limit, where do we go from here? I remember a time before cell phones, email, internet or Zoom. It was a world where we used landlines (sometimes without an answering machine!) to make calls, and we wrote and passed notes and somehow managed to meet people at a designated time and place without ever sending a single text.

I don’t think that writing and passing notes will cure our tech-saturated Zoomed out brains, but maybe mailing a letter isn’t such a bad idea? In the midst of the pandemic, my 6-year old nephew sent my son a handwritten letter in the mail that simply said, “I love you you’re cute and I miss you.”

Granted, my son couldn’t read the letter because he’s 2 years old, but it brought him so much joy, just knowing it was from his cousin. It was such a simple moment that meant so much to my son (and to me).

The fact is, I’ll probably keep scheduling occasional Zoom happy hours while we’re all still sheltered at home, rather than writing handwritten notes to my friends. Sometimes, though, a simple old-fashioned phone call will do, or — if you’re really ambitious— a letter. Besides, maybe our collective Zoom fatigue isn’t such a bad thing. Maybe it just means we’re all longing to connect, more than ever, in real life.