Do Masks Impede Children’s Development?

The New York Times

By Perri Klass

September 14, 2020

Eva Chen, a developmental psychologist who is an associate professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, focuses her research on children’s cognitive development with respect to social groups. “We should give more credit to our own children,” she said, “that being covered for a few hours every day isn’t going to make them less able to recognize social expressions.” Voices, gestures and overall body language are all important for children, she said. While children typically pay attention to people’s mouths while they are talking, “it’s by far not the only cue children have to communicate and to learn,” she said, and referenced a 2012 study showing that children were able to read facial emotions just as well when a mask was added.

In fact, all of the scientists I talked to who have studied the complex ways that children process and use the information hidden by masks also believe that children will find ways to communicate, and that parents and teachers can help them. Several of them also pointed out that children with neurodevelopmental issues such as autism will need special help and special consideration — but also that some of the techniques that parents and teachers already use to help these children learn to interpret social cues may be helpful for everyone when masks are in use.

Sarah Gaither, an assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, said in an email, “With 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.” Children will get better at reading people’s eyes, she suggested, and at understanding emotional content from tone of voice.