Considering How Mandatory Camera Policies Are Affecting Students’ Self-Esteem and Personal Privacy

June 30, 2021 by Latifa Sekarini

2021 1 latifa sekarini article 1

One year into the COVID-19 pandemic, video-conferencing has become an essential part of remote learning. Professors often include policies regarding camera use in their syllabi, claiming these policies make it easier to assess students’ participation and keep them engaged. Despite attempts to replicate university life through video-conferencing platforms, students should not be mandated to keep their cameras on during class as mandatory camera policies pose their own challenges.

Firstly, online classes forced students to sit in front of their reflections for a prolonged amount of time, which led them to notice unflattering facial expressions and contortions they were previously inattentive of. Before the pandemic led to classes being held online, none of us could ever imagine having “Zoom face,” which, according to Grazia Daily, is the lockdown-specific, video-call-transmitted conviction your face is “imperfect in ways of which you were once completely oblivious.” Although offline classes required students to fulfill a certain standard to look presentable, students did not have to obsess over flattering camera angles or lighting in the middle of a lecture. In an offline setting, a student asking a question in class wouldn’t have to look at themselves while talking. But in an online class, students are watching themselves talk and react to others talking, which prompts them to “fixate on perceived flaws in their appearance that reveal themselves during video-conference calls.” Board-certified dermatologist Arianne “Shadi” Kourosh calls this phenomenon “Zoom dysmorphia.” Kourosh and her colleagues published a report in the International Journal of Women’s Dermatology on the rise of body dysmorphia with increased Zoom usage. Kourosh notes evidence that “front-facing cameras on our devices actually alter proportions even more [than professional-grade cameras]. People were staring at their own [distorted] reflection for hours on end in [an unnatural way] and in a way that society hasn’t seen until the pandemic.”

Although the general assumption is that face-to-face interactions can be replicated through video cameras, video-conferences and mandatory camera policies pale in comparison to the offline experience. Researchers from Carnegie Mellon's Tepper School of Business and the Department of Communication at the University of California, Santa Barbara suggest that limited access to video may promote better communication and social interaction during collaborative problem-solving. The research paper revealed that the lack of video does not hinder participants of a call from communicating interaction rules (such as asking or taking turns in speaking). On the other hand, video-conferencing can reduce collective intelligence, according to Anita Williams Woolley, Associate Professor of Organizational Behavior and Theory at Carnegie Mellon’s Tepper School of Business. Professor Woolley claims that video-conferencing “leads to more unequal contribution to the conversation and disrupts vocal synchrony. Our study underscores the importance of audio cues, which appear to be compromised by video access.”

Privacy is also an issue that students may feel hesitant to speak about. When we turn our cameras on during class, we are sharing our personal space with other participants in the video-conferencing room. Not all students are fortunate enough to be residing in the same country or dormitory as their peers. Some students lack a private space to take classes and feel uncomfortable being on camera in rooms shared with household members. An anonymous freshman says, “In offline class, other students can’t tell who doesn’t have their own room, or who has a bad WiFi connection. But with online classes that require you to turn your camera on, it’s more difficult to hide the fact that you’re doing classes in the same room with your siblings, or the fact that your thumbnail keeps freezing in the middle of a class discussion because your WiFi can’t handle a call with 16 people in it.”

The pandemic has left students with no choice but to attend classes remotely. Mandating the use of cameras in an online environment suggests a lack of consideration from professors, especially those who choose to call out students who have their cameras turned off. Professors should be more lenient when it comes to camera use. Despite the importance of student engagement, participation points should not come at the expense of a student’s self-esteem. Students also should not have to choose between maintaining their privacy and their education. It is strongly encouraged that professors foster empathy and understanding for students, especially those who struggle with mental health issues or those in precarious situations due to the pandemic.

The UIC Scribe was founded in 2006 as the official student-run newsmagazine of Underwood International College. It celebrates diversity of thinking, excellence in writing, and the freedom of self-expression.