Zoom Anxiety: When Online Communication and Social Anxiety Clash

Hands typing on a laptop computer
Missing having meetings IRL?

“But, I’m afraid to ask my teacher,” my sixth-grader said. 

“It’s a good question about how to do this assignment, though. I’m not understanding what they’re asking for either,” I replied. “Why don’t you just send a message in google classroom or maybe an email?” 

“Ugh, I hate email! It takes me forever to figure out what to say, and then what if she doesn’t understand what I’m asking or thinks I’m dumb for even asking it? She won’t think I’m a good student…” 

What if…?

Questions that start that way are bound to be related to anxiety. What if the worst I can think of happens, and I feel bad/uncomfortable/yucky? We all have to deal with those feelings sometimes though, right?

Although she has no problem participating in class discussions and answering questions in class, being worried about interacting with teachers about assignments and expectations isn’t unusual for her. She’s a good student who feels like asking questions might make the teacher mad at her or might make her look stupid in front of classmates. She’s not alone either – many of my middle and high school students feel this way even if they aren’t diagnosed with an anxiety disorder. Students with ADHD often tell me “My teacher hates me” because they are used to getting in trouble for talking, missing instructions, and not completing assignments. Gifted students know that they are “supposed to be the smart ones” and don’t want to look like they don’t know everything. Students with learning disabilities are worried that their classmates might find out that they don’t understand things in the same way or as quickly as others do. Many of these students are afraid to participate in class at all because they don’t want all eyes on them. 

Enter Zoom. Anyone who has been on a videoconference knows, it’s very easy to watch and judge others without them knowing you are doing it which increases anxiety about online communication even more than chat and email. You can see everyone’s face. You can even see their room in the background behind them if they’re not using a virtual background. You can’t zone out or “hide” as easily in a zoom class as you can in a classroom, and all your peers can watch you pick your nose or involuntarily roll your eyes. 

You can also watch yourself, which, let’s face it, is what most people are doing. Teens and tweens are already very self-conscious and spend lots of time taking “just the right selfie” or recording “just the right TikTok.” In a live video conference, you can see what your hair looks like, what your teeth look like when you talk, any blemishes on your face, etc… And very few of us have been taught videoconferencing “etiquette.” Kids with weak social skills to begin with struggle even more with this new environment.

All of this fuels a tendency to avoid and “hate zoom” for a lot of kids, teens, and even adults. People with and without anxiety disorders may avoid or actively refuse to participate, or they may struggle with all the direct online communication, which then affects their ability to learn.

With these challenges in mind, here are some tips that may help with Zoom/Online Communication anxiety:

  • Parents, don’t be afraid to facilitate communication between your child and teacher. While we would love to take a step back and let our kids and teens handle these situations on their own at their age, these are brand new behaviors and expectations in a very stressful time. Kids and teens may not know how to appropriately craft an email to a teacher (I know many college students who do not!). Teachers may not realize that their students are experiencing anxiety and fear regarding communicating with them in this way and may assume students are just checked out or lazy. Without seeing their faces or body language as they would in school, they don’t have any clues as to what is going on. Consider sending the teacher an email together with your child (copying your child on the email). Set up a group call with the teacher to discuss your child’s concerns, or contact the teacher on your own to describe your child’s concerns about online communication so the teacher is aware of what they are dealing with and can suggest solutions. As your child becomes more comfortable with the interactions, you can wean yourself out of the situation and let your child take over. 
  • Use the motto, “If you can’t do this, what can you do?” If fully participating in a video conference is too difficult, what modifications can be made that are less difficult? Can the teacher allow students to be on the call but without video (maybe with an occasional individual chat check in to make sure the student is following along)? Can your teacher send a chat ahead of time to let the student know what question they’d like to ask them during the meeting so the student can be prepared with answer? Will using a virtual background make them feel more or less comfortable? Can it be agreed upon that the student will not be called on directly, but only if they raise their hand?
  • Teach Self-Talk: Ask your child to notice how often they look at themselves during video chat versus how often they look at everyone else. Likely they spend way more time looking at themselves. They might be able to remind themselves “Others are probably looking at themselves more than they’re looking at me” or “Looking at everyone else, most of them are in comfortable clothes with messy hair, it’s not just me – they don’t care.” Or even just a general, “I don’t like this, but I can handle it for an hour.”
  • Teach perspective taking. When talking to kids and teens, I’ll often point out that teachers are humans, too – in fact, they’re humans in a crisis situation just like you are. Imagine the situation they’re in. They are having to learn how to provide online education in a very short period of time for students who are at home, anxious, and not motivated. They are having to do all of that while their own children are at home (maybe also trying to learn) or with other relatives to care for. They are experiencing pressure from their school districts to check in with every student, as well as worrying a lot about students who come from backgrounds that may be especially hard hit by this crisis. Some of these students they have not heard from at all for weeks. If all the worrying you’re doing is making you cranky and disorganized, it shouldn’t be surprising if teachers have a shorter fuse than usual or seem a bit flaky – but it’s not about you personally. Just like you might snap at your mother, sibling, friend, or partner when you’re in a bad mood, teachers may do the same at times. This would be true even if we weren’t all in a crisis situation. Another good mantra to say to yourself is “We’re all doing the best we can right now.”

By: Lisa Ahern, PhD