sA new study has shown that children between the ages of 3 and 5 have difficulty in recognising the emotions of people wearing surgical masks. This collateral effect from this measure to prevent COVID transmission could influence the correct development of children’s capabilities of social interaction.
To provide guidance for decision-makers, the World Health Organization (WHO) and UNICEF compiled a document discouraging exposure to the use of facemasks when dealing with children aged up to five years old. In addition, even for older children, WHO recommends weighing up the benefits of wearing facemasks in against potential negative impacts that could include social and psychological problems, and difficulties in communication and learning.
To investigate such possible negative impacts, a study was carried out by the U-Vip (Unit for Visually Impaired People) research team led by Monica Gori at the IIT- Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia (Italian Institute of Technology). The findings were published in Frontiers in Psychology.
A research team led by Monica Gori at the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia (IIT) focused on the pre-school age group, helping define the measures that can be taken to reduce the impact of the use of surgical masks amongst children. While the wearing of facemasks is not mandatory from 3 to 5 years of age, children are in any case exposed to the use of such preventive measures in various everyday social and educational contexts.
The IIT researchers prepared a quiz containing images of people with and without facemasks, and displayed them on screens to 119 individuals comprising 31 children aged between 3 and 5 years old, 49 children between 6 and 8 years old, and 39 adults between 18 and 30 years old. The participants, independently or with parental assistance in the case of the youngest participants, were asked to try to recognise the faces’ expressions, with and without facemask, conveying different emotions such as happiness, sadness, fear and anger.
When those faces were covered with a facemask, the 3-5 years olds only managed to recognise facial expressions conveying happiness and sadness 40% of the time. The percentages were higher for other age groups: 6-8 years olds had a 55-65% success rate, and 70-80% adults. Generally, however, all age groups displayed some difficulty in interpreting these emotions expressed while the face was partially covered by a facemask. There were better results with other expressions, but the pre-school age children still had the greatest difficulty.
“The experiment was performed in the earliest phases of the 2020 pandemic, and at that time facemasks were still a new experience for everyone,” said Monica Gori. “Children’s brains are highly flexible, and at the moment we are performing tests to ascertain whether children’s understanding of emotions has increased or not.”
“In the study, we worked with children and adults with no forms of disability”, explained Maria Bianca Amadeo, IIT researcher, “of course, these observations are even more important when considering children affected by disabilities.”
“Indeed”, added co-author Lucia Schiatti, IIT researcher, “for example visual impairment implies difficulties in social interaction. For such individuals in particular, it will be even more necessary to concentrate on possible preventive measures or specific rehabilitation activities”.
Further research is needed over the next few years to assess the actual impact of this mask wearing on the ability of children with and without disabilities to interact. In the meantime, the findings suggest the use of transparent facemasks for all operators in contact with children in the 3-5 year-old age group, or developing training activities to teach children how to recognise emotions by looking at the eyes.
Journal information: Gori, M., et al. (2021) Masking Emotions: Face Masks Impair How We Read Emotions. Frontiers in Psychology. doi.org/10.3389/fpsyg.2021.669432.