Zoom and booze don’t mix: Staring at each other during online social gatherings can make the mood worse; Alcohol can increase this effect

Newswise – As many social gatherings – date nights, game nights with friends and family hangouts – have migrated to an online environment, seeing yourself on screen while talking to others has become commonplace. These virtual look-alike encounters have their drawbacks, however, including distracting our partners’ attention and encouraging us to focus on our own appearance.

New research soon to be published in the journal Clinical Psychological Sciences, found that the more a person looks at themselves in an online chat, the more their mood deteriorates. Alcohol seems to make this problem worse. This research sheds new light on the relationship between mood, alcohol, and attentional focus during virtual social interactions.

“These findings point to a potentially problematic role for online meeting platforms in exacerbating psychological issues like anxiety and depression,” said Talia Ariss, a doctoral student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who has co-led the research with psychology professor Catharine Fairbairn. “The findings add to previous studies suggesting that people who focus more on themselves than on external realities, especially during social interactions, may be susceptible to mood disorders.”

For the study, participants answered questions about their emotional state before and after online conversations. They were asked to discuss their musical preferences and what they liked and disliked about life in the local community during the discussions. Participants could see themselves and their interlocutors on a split-screen monitor. Some drank an alcoholic drink before speaking and others drank a non-alcoholic drink.

“Using eye-tracking technology, we found that participants who spent more time looking at each other during the conversation felt worse after the call, even after controlling for negative mood before the interaction,” said Ariss said. “Those who were under the influence of alcohol spent more time looking at themselves.”

In general, the participants looked at their interlocutors on the screen much more than they looked at themselves. But there were significant differences in the amount of time individual participants spent looking at each other. The more self-centered a person is, the more likely they are to report feeling emotions associated with anxiety and even depression, the researchers said.

“The cool thing about virtual social interactions, especially on platforms like Zoom, is that you can simulate the experience of looking in a mirror,” Ariss explained. This allows researchers to explore how self-focus influences a host of other factors, she said.

Adding alcohol to the experiment and using eye-tracking technology also allowed scientists to explore how mild intoxication affects where a person focuses their attention.

“In the context of in-person social interactions, there is strong evidence that alcohol acts as a social lubricant in drinkers and has these mood-enhancing properties,” Ariss said. “This did not hold true, however, in online conversations, where drinking correlated with greater self-focus and had none of its typical effects on mood.”

Users of the Zoom virtual meeting platform increased 30-fold during the pandemic, from 10 million in December 2019 to 300 million in April 2020, the researchers wrote. The pandemic has also brought bouts of depression and anxiety. Given reports of heightened self-awareness and “fatigue” during virtual exchanges, they noted, some blamed virtual interactions for exacerbating these tendencies.

“At this point in the pandemic, many of us have realized that virtual interactions just aren’t the same as face-to-face,” Fairbairn said. “A lot of people struggle with fatigue and melancholy after a full day of Zoom meetings. Our work suggests that the auto-view offered on many online video platforms could make these interactions more cumbersome than they need to be.

The National Institutes of Health supported this research.


Reference: Ariss, T., Fairbairn, C., Sayette, M., Velia, B., Berenbaum, H., & Brown-Schmidt, S. (in press). Where to look? Alcohol, affect and gaze behavior during virtual social interaction. Clinical Psychological Sciences.

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