The efficiency of fuel cells and metal–air batteries is significantly limited by the activation of oxygen reduction and evolution reactions. Despite the well-recognized role of oxygen reaction kinetics on the viability of energy technologies, the governing mechanisms remain elusive and until now have been addressable only by macroscopic studies. This lack of nanoscale understanding precludes optimization of material architecture. Here, we report direct measurements of oxygen reduction/evolution reactions and oxygen vacancy diffusion on oxygen-ion conductive solid surfaces with sub-10 nm resolution. In electrochemical strain microscopy, the biased scanning probe microscopy tip acts as a moving, electrocatalytically active probe exploring local electrochemical activity. The probe concentrates an electric field in a nanometre-scale volume of material, and bias-induced, picometre-level surface displacements provide information on local electrochemical processes. Systematic mapping of oxygen activity on bare and platinum-functionalized yttria-stabilized zirconia surfaces is demonstrated. This approach allows direct visualization of the oxygen reduction/evolution reaction activation process at the triple-phase boundary, and can be extended to a broad spectrum of oxygen-conductive and electrocatalytic materials.