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New research indicates that preschool age children are still able to correctly recognize emotions in other people even if they are wearing a face mask. Andrea Obzerova/Getty Images
  • Face masks have been a common COVID-19 prevention method in many school and daycare environments throughout the nearly 2-year pandemic.
  • Many experts and parents have raised concerns about how continued use of a face mask might impact the emotional development of young children.
  • A recent study looked at the question of whether or not face masks affect the ability for preschoolers to detect emotions in others.
  • The results of the research showed the face masks had very little impact on young children’s ability to detect emotions in adults who were wearing face masks.

Wearing a face mask can reduce transmission of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. But as the pandemic has lingered for nearly 2 years, experts have been concerned about how living in a masked society may impact small children developmentally.

Being able to differentiate facial and vocal emotion is a pillar of childhood development and social competence. Research suggests that children as young as 36 hours old can discriminate between basic facial expressions.

A new study raised the question of whether or not face masks affect the ability for preschoolers to detect emotions. Researchers investigated if children had difficulty recognizing emotions and how that could impact their development.

But according to the study, face masks had a very minimal impact on a child’s ability to discern emotion in adults.

“What it shows is despite the fact that we have to wear masks, the ability of a child to recognize emotion is not impaired,” said Dr. Hugh Bases, developmental and behavioral pediatrician and associate professor in the Department of Pediatrics at Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital at NYU Langone Health.

The differentiation of facial expressions is a necessary skill that allows children to share and adapt emotions with people around them.

This most recent study aimed to determine whether or not the obstruction of half of the face would impact a child’s ability to recognize facial expressions and, ultimately, if the results would suggest an impact on childhood development.

“It’s important [for children] to recognize emotions and the concern is that making them wear masks might then impair their ability, but this study shows it doesn’t,” said Bases.

The study looked at preschoolers ages 36 to 72 months.

The study used 15 actors with and without face masks to create a data set of 90 pictures to display these emotions. The children were then asked to name the emotions they recognized in the photos.

The primary outcome of the study was to look at the rate of correct responses using pictures of adults displaying joy, anger, or sadness.

The sample study included 276 children. The correct response rate was 68.8 percent with about 70.6 percent without face masks, versus 66.9 percent with face masks.

The analysis of the mistakes showed that 25 percent of preschoolers confused anger and sadness, and 21 percent answered joy for anger or sadness. Overall, it was determined that face masks had little impact on a child’s ability to recognize facial emotions.

“This study, through a public health lens, does not have evidence that supports blunted emotion detection from preschoolers looking at static cards,” said Dr. Eric Cioe-Peña, director of global health, Northwell Health, New Hyde Park.

“Any effect would likely be overstated given the additional visual, verbal, and dynamic cues adults give preschool aged children regarding emotion recognition. I have seen no evidence that demonstrates negative effects of mask wearing in preschool age children, and this study supports the no emotional harm statement,” he said.

“Kids are fairly resilient,” said Bases. “Any time you have a skill that is either not being obtained or not achieved because of some limitation, kids are fairly adaptable and resourceful. Kids see emotion not just through teachers, but also parents, siblings, grandparents, and other sources of transmission of emotional state.”