Cognitive Science

Children’s ability to detect emotions appears to be minimally impacted by masks during the COVID-19 pandemic

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Children’s ability to discern emotions from faces does not appear to be dramatically impaired by mask wearing, according to new research published in PLOS One.

“To slow the spread of the COVID-19, both the Centers for Disease Control and the World Health Organization have recommended wearing face coverings in public spaces,” said lead researcher Ashley Ruba, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Wisconsin – Madison’s Child Emotion Lab.

“This recommendation has led to speculation and concern by parents about the ramifications of mask wearing on emotion communication. We wanted to test if those concerns were well-founded.”

For their study, the researchers showed 81 children photos of faces displaying sadness, anger or fear. Some of the faces were unobstructed, while others were partially covered by a surgical mask or wearing sunglasses.

The 7- to 13-year-old children were asked to assign an emotion to each face from a list of six labels. The faces were revealed slowly, with scrambled pixels of the original image falling into their proper place over 14 stages to better simulate the way real-world interactions may require piecing things together from odd angles or fleeting glimpses.

Unsurprisingly, the researchers found that the children were more accurate when faces were uncovered. But children’s accuracy with faces that wore masks did not significantly differ from their accuracy with faces that wore sunglasses.

The participants correctly judged the emotion of the uncovered faces as often as 66% of the time. For faces partially obscured by masks, the children correctly identified sadness about 28% of the time, anger 27% of the time, and fear 18% of the time — rates better than chance.

“Children can likely make reasonably accurate inferences about other people’s emotions, even though people are often wearing masks. This should put parents’ minds at ease about how mask-wearing might impact this aspect of child development,” Ruba told PsyPost.

But there is still much to learn about the development and psychological consequences of mask wearing.

“Researchers need to examine how mask-wearing may impact other aspects of child development,” Ruba explained. “It is possible that language development could be impacted (if children are not able to read lips). Children may still feel isolated or cut off from others if they are unable to see positive smiles.”

The researcher also has some practical advice for parents and educators amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“When you are trying to convey emotions to children (or anyone else) while wearing a mask, label how you are feeling, gesture, and use your voice. Children can use these cues to infer how you are feeling,” Ruba said.

The study, “Children’s emotion inferences from masked faces: Implications for social interactions during COVID-19“, was authored by Ashley L. Ruba and Seth D. Pollak.