September 17, 2020

Will face masks impede a child's development? Here's what the experts say.

Daily Briefing

    Many parents are worried that their children's mask-wearing—and interactions with others who wear masks—could interfere with normal development in speech, language, and social interaction.

    How the coronavirus affects children, according to new research

    Here's what the experts believe, according to Perri Klass, a pediatrician, writing for the New York Times' "The Checkup."

    How face masks could interfere with a child's development

    According to Klass, experts acknowledge that masks could potentially affect how children develop certain skills.

    Kang Lee, a professor of applied psychology and human development at the University of Toronto who studies children's development of facial recognition skills, said he thinks face masks may pose three particular challenges.

    First, children under 12 may struggle to recognize people, as younger children tend to rely on specific facial features to distinguish people. Second, because face masks obscure the "facial musculature" people use to communicate "emotional information," children will likely have problems with "emotional recognition and social interaction," Lee explained. Third, children may struggle with speech recognition, since so much information about speech is communicated visually.

    David Lewkowicz, a senior scientist at the Haskins Laboratories and the Yale Child Study Center who has studied babies' lip-reading, explained that babies use a combination of auditory and visual signals to learn how to speak. Babies "spend a lot of time looking at [a] person's mouth, trying to master their own native speech, getting not only auditory cues but visual," Lewkowicz said.

    As a result of this preference for—and reliance on—visual cues, young children may struggle to identify their masked caretakers' voices, Lewkowicz explained. "Masks are not a great thing for communication in young kids," Lewkowicz said.

    But parents shouldn't worry too much, experts say

    Despite these challenges, experts said parents shouldn't worry too much about face masks interfering with their children's development, as children are malleable and can pick up language and social skills in a variety of ways.

    "We should give more credit to our own children," Eva Chen—a developmental psychologist and associate professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology who studies children's cognitive development—said. "[B]eing covered for a few hours every day isn't going to make them less able to recognize social expressions."

    As Chen explained, children focus on much more than just an individual's mouth; they also pay attention to voices, gestures, and body language. In fact, a 2012 study found children could recognize facial emotions equally well whether or not a person was wearing a face mask. Moreover, there's no evidence that children raised in cultures where mask wearing is fairly common, such as Hong Kong, fare any worse than other children at recognizing faces or emotions, Chen said.

    For his part, Lee said he believes children will quickly adapt to processing information through face masks, though he believes teachers and parents will have to help children make the adjustment by wearing personalized face masks, using the same eyeglasses or hairstyles, or dressing in a consistent fashion. Children "can figure out who a person is by using information still available to them, the shape of the eyes, the eyebrows, voice, posture," he said.

    As for social skill development, Sarah Gaither, an assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, wrote in an email to Klass that, "[w]ith mask wearing now being required in most school settings, children and adults should start practicing being more explicitly verbal by stating their emotions out loud." She added, "[P]arents and teachers may also want to ask children more often what they are feeling as well."

    "Kids are very, very adaptive, more adaptive than we are—they learn very quickly," Lee said. "I don't think parents should be too worried" (Klass, "The Checkup," New York Times, 9/14).

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