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Do Masks Impair Children’s Social and Emotional Development?

Worried face masks are impairing your child’s social and emotional development? You’re not alone. Let’s face it – stressing about the impact of Covid on our kids is becoming a national pastime.

One of the most common questions I get from parents of toddlers and children during Covid is “what impact will mask wearing have on my kid’s ability to read faces as they grow? Will kids have social and emotional deficits, or social skills problems, from all the blank faces they are seeing?”

Of course, parents have plenty to worry about – parenting during a pandemic is no picnic. We’re worried about the effects of our own stress and parental burnout on our kids. We’re worried about the stresses of homeschooling, hybrid schooling, or socially distanced education.

Most parents report that their children are socializing less – hello, social distancing – and are concerned about the cumulative effects of that on their children. Research from the University of Wisconsin at Madison can put our worries at ease. Face masks are only mildly interfering with children’s ability to read emotions, and in some cases, can be beneficial for reading certain emotions more accurately.

The research studied 80 children between the ages of 7 and 13, using an innovative presentation style known as RISE (Random Image Structure Evolution). In the real world, we catch glimpses of people’s faces at odd angles and through distortions – like when we’re looking at our mom’s face from the backseat, or when we’re gazing at our phone and talking to a friend at the same time.

The RISE design allows children to view faces with some of the pixels distorted, out of place, or gradually falling into place. Using this paradigm, researchers showed children faces that were unobscured, partially obscured by a mask, or partially obscured by sunglasses. The faces were taken from the gold standard Matsumo and Ekman database of stereotypical facial configurations of emotions. The children were asked to assign emotion labels to the faces- happy, angry, sad, disgusted, afraid, or surprised.

Given that there are six choices, children could be expected to randomly guess correctly 17% of the time. Without any masks, sunglasses, or distorted pixels obscuring the faces, the children correctly identified the emotions as often as 66% of the time, suggesting that unobscured faces are easiest to read.

With a mask in the way, children correctly identified sadness 28% of the time, anger 27% of the time, and fear 18% of the time. This finding suggests that while faces with no masks and nothing obscured are easiest to read, children can read faces that are obscured with masks. It may be more difficult, but it’s not impossible.

Why Don’t Masks Make Face Reading Impossible?

We actually infer more accurate emotional information from the muscles around people’s eyes, their eyebrows, and their upper cheek muscles. The mouth can lie. We all know what a fake smile is, and most people report finding it creepy. When we ask “What’s fake about that smile?“ even small children can say “it doesn’t reach the eyes.” By blocking the mouth, face masks might serve to direct children’s attention to the regions that matter.

Let’s consider an emotion like surprise. It’s true we can read it easily from the rounded “O” shape the mouth makes. But even without that shape, we can see eyebrows arch upwards into an upside down “U” shape, the forehead muscles lift, and the eyes widen. While a mask might obscure the shape of the mouth, the mask will also elongate over a very exaggerated “O” shape, making it easy to infer the shape of the mouth beneath the mask.

What about fear? Like surprise, our eyelids open wide when we’re afraid, but our eyebrows go down in a flat line. Frequently, frightened people have their mouths slightly open, but that’s not really the clue that we use. Another excellent cue for fear is our shoulders – when we’re afraid, shoulders tend to hunch defensively. The mouth is not terribly helpful for this one!

Anger is also read primarily in the upper regions of the face. We’re looking for two parallel lines down the middle of the forehead, eyebrows drawn inwards and downward. Compressed lips are another indicator of anger, but even without them, the drawn in brow and two parallel lines are enough to indicate a warning sign.

Happiness is one that children can get wrong, because they confuse the “fake smile” with the true, or Duchenne smile. As every four-year-old who has ever drawn a crayon figure knows, we can show happiness by drawing a big, curvy U shape for a mouth. But smiles can be faked. The true smile is indicated by little crinkles in the corners of each eye, elevation in the upper cheeks (the part not generally covered by a face mask). Covering the mouth can help a child focus on the true indicator of happiness – “crinkly” eyes and raised cheeks – and not the less reliable indicator, the shape of the mouth.

Disgust is generally indicated by a scrunched-up nose and narrow brows. Depending on the face mask, it might be difficult to read disgust if the nose is entirely covered. In general, since disgust is fairly easy to read when the face is uncovered, it shouldn’t be difficult for a child to pick up the facial cues for this emotion once faces are entirely unobscured again.

Sadness is considered a difficult emotion for children to read. Surprisingly, this study found that children were most accurate at reading sadness, even with faces occluded by a face mask. Sadness is hard to fake, and it’s hard to read with a face mask, yet children still were remarkably accurate about reading it. Perhaps this is due to more experience with reading this emotion over the Covid pandemic? A “sad” face has pinched inner eyebrows, and droopy eyelids. Sad people generally have slumped shoulders as well.

Ensuring Children Can Face Read Over Covid:

The results of this study are encouraging, suggesting that masks are not interfering with children’s development of face-reading. In some ways, obscuring the lower half of the face can be helpful, since it directs children’s attention to the upper regions of the face, which are the more accurate indicators of emotions. In addition, I have found in clinical practice that directing children to look at shoulders and pay attention to tone of voice can be helpful in filling in the blanks.

If you are concerned about your child’s social and emotional skills over Covid, why not play a game, asking the child to read your facial expressions both with and without a mask? Play “emotion actionary” – write an emotion like “surprised” down on a paper, and children have to either act out the emotion or correctly identify it. The team who correctly identifies the emotion wins! You can extend the game by asking the child to create a little anecdote that explains why someone might feel that way. “You guessed sadness. Why would someone feel sad?”

Even if Covid does interfere with some aspects of social skills, we can all rest easy on two fronts. First, the brain is neuro-plastic. We tend to adapt and use different strategies when our preferred strategy is blocked. Can’t read happiness from a smile? Look at the corners of the eyes.  Feeling lonely but can’t go for a playdate? Let’s video chat over Zoom.

In addition, most children are experiencing this crisis, across the globe. We’re all learning new coping methods and we’re all having to adjust. Even if the entire crop of 1-6 year olds globally experience some form of delay, they’ll be in the same boat as their classmates. We may have to create some form of intervention to deal with Covid-related delays, but if we do, it will be a shared, global problem, and we’ll all know about it and what to do about it. Pandemic parenting is stressful, but at least we can alleviate this concern – there’s no evidence that mask wearing will impair children’s face-reading to a critical extent.

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