Teenagers are typically highly self-conscious. (I talk about this during my events for parents and teachers. Professor Sarah-Jayne Blakemore introduced me to this concept some years ago. She is a leading scientist in this area.) Teenagers tend to be more vulnerable to poor body image, to hate aspects of how they look and feel that everyone is looking at them. Self-esteem can plummet when they see themselves, especially when they haven’t had a chance to touch up their appearance. And before you say, “How shallow”, note there is actually an option on Zoom called “touch up appearance”. Designed for adults…
Yet online teaching means that they have to see themselves on video multiple times a day. This can make them feel self-conscious as they are watched not only by themselves but their peers and teachers. This will affect many young people very acutely.
When their brain bandwidth – or attention – is full of thoughts such as “I look awful” / “I hate my face” / “Everyone can see me on screen”, they cannot be doing their best work. We do not do our best work when our bandwidth is occupied by upsetting, stressful or distracting thoughts. We do our best work when we have as much free bandwidth as we need for the task.
But it’s not only teenagers who feel self-conscious and disconcerted when seeing themselves on screen. It can be at best distracting and at worst undermining and upsetting for adults, too. Anyone who has done a Zoom or Teams video call has had that experience of seeing themselves at unflattering angles and trying to adjust the screen or the lighting. It takes a while to get the lighting right, as I now have, but not until I’d bought some high-end lighting systems for creating my teaching videos.
And it’s not just the lighting and whether we’re happy with our appearance: it’s also the inherent oddness of looking at ourselves while we’re speaking to someone else. We are familiar with looking at someone else and never seeing ourselves while speaking. Seeng ourselves talk is disconcerting.
The problem for teachers
The problem for schools is that teachers need to see their students so it’s not going to work if videos are off. How do we balance the negative effect of teenagers feeling self-conscious with the need for teachers to see them in order to engage effectively ?
I was discussing this during the Q&A after a talk for parents at The British School, Romania. Although I neatly defined and agreed with the problem (explaining about the teenage brain behaviour relating to social embarrassment), only afterwards did I have a brainwave that might supply the answer. I am sharing it with you now!
By the way, one of the parents had her son with her and he completely agreed with my response. He said he found it really stressful seeing himself on screen during lessons.
How can teachers teach via video while allowing students to feel unwatched and unjudged, allowing them to do their best work?
The answer came to me when I started thinking about a public webinar I did for young writers earlier this year. I was aware that some would prefer to be invisible but for me to be looking at black boxes with a name on would be disconcerting. It would feel less personal and human. So I gave them a few ideas about how they could have a visible presence without anyone seeing their faces. Some of my ideas won’t work for schools but you might like them anyway: a) have the camera pointing towards a cuddly toy or pet b) use a photo of something else (one person had a photo of a cat in a tree!) or c) just show some furniture or any object in your room.
Here are the ideas that could work for students in online lessons. Some take a bit of time to set up but once you’ve done it once it’s easy the next time. The aim is for the student to be visibly there, so the teacher can see them, but not feel self-conscious about their appearance.
- Angle the camera so that your face isn’t visible but below your shoulders is, or even just your hands.
- Work out some clever lighting so that your face is in strong shadow. For example, have a window or light behind you. This is the best way to feel comfortable and yet still be able to engage.
- If you’re comfortable about your profile, angle the camera in that way.
- Using a second camera (such as a phone or an external webcam – there’s lot of choice of cameras for under £20) you could have your back to the camera but be able to see the screen yourself.
- Use a clever disguise! Hat, scarf, even a wig! There’s a risk of this distracting others but I think this can be managed with imaginative and empathetic input from the teacher.
I’d love to know from teachers and teenagers about this. Do you relate to the problem? Do you have any other ideas?
I do have another idea
Teachers can ensure that lessons contain times when students are not seeing themselves at all. For example, when they are watching the videos that I’ve made as part of my Teaching Materials! And if you book a Live Q&A with me, I’d suggest that we use some of the privacy suggestions above. Let’s give students a break from stress and self-consciousness!
Adults, let’s be understanding about how young people feel about this. They are often genuinely severely affected by self-consciousness and it’s not a trivial matter. It can undermine their self-esteem and affect how well they learn and take in information. And that’s not what we want.