In the midst of one of the worst pandemics in modern history, many people are following CDC and WHO recommendations to wear face coverings in public to help slow the spread of COVID-19. A new study from UW Madison has investigated how face masks may affect a child’s ability to communicate and interpret the emotions of others.
“Of particular concern for parents and teachers is how wearing masks might impact children’s social interactions,” wrote the study authors.
“While much research has documented how children infer emotions from facial configurations and how this ability predicts children’s social and academic competence, uncertain is how children make these inferences when part of the face is occluded by a mask. The current study explores how children draw emotional inferences from faces partially occluded by surgical masks and, as a comparison, sunglasses.”
The researchers determined that the use of face coverings does not always prevent children from recognizing facial expressions, despite the fact that many nonverbal cues are no longer visible.
“We now have this situation where adults and kids have to interact all the time with people whose faces are partly covered, and a lot of adults are wondering if that’s going to be a problem for children’s emotional development,” said study lead author Ashley Ruba.
For the investigation, children between the ages 7 to 13 were shown photographs of faces displaying sadness, anger, or fear. The faces were either covered by a surgical mask or sunglasses. The children correctly identified sadness about 28 percent of the time, anger 27 percent of the time, and fear 18 percent of the time.
“Not surprisingly, it was tougher with parts of the faces covered. But even with a mask covering the nose and mouth, the kids were able to identify these emotions at a rate better than chance,” explained Ruba.
The results reflect differences in the way emotional information is conveyed by the face. For example, sunglasses made it more difficult to recognize anger and fear, which indicates that the eyes and eyebrows are important to those facial expressions. Fear was also the trickiest emotion for children to identify behind a mask.
The findings suggest that if children perform better than chance at recognizing emotions with a mask in place, they are likely to do even better in real-life situations.
“Emotions aren’t conveyed solely through your face,” said Ruba. “Vocal inflections, the way that someone positions their body, and what’s going on around them, all that other information helps us make better predictions about what someone is feeling.”
The research shows that children can grow in their emotional capabilities, even if some of their social interactions are happening through face coverings.
“I hope this settles some nerves,” said Ruba. “Kids are really resilient. They’re able to adjust to the information they’re given, and it doesn’t look like wearing masks will slow down their development in this case.”
The study is published in the journal PLOS ONE.