Face Masks and Children’s Emotion Understanding
Do masks get in the way of learning and communication?
Posted Jan 18, 2021
If there were a symbol or icon to represent the past year, it would definitely be the face mask. Indeed, face masks have become the banner of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is reasonable, as all scientific evidence supports wearing face masks to reduce the spread of the virus, as it cuts down the chances of both spreading it and catching it from others.
Even with a vaccine heading our way, it’s doubtful that we’ll be having mask-burning parties anytime soon for a number of reasons. For one, kids might not be getting vaccinated for a while, as studies of the effectiveness and safety of the vaccine in children under the age of 16 are only just starting. For another, although the vaccine will keep us safe from developing symptoms ourselves, it isn’t clear that it will keep us from spreading the virus to others if we’re exposed.
This suggests that masks aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. As a developmental psychologist who specializes in emotion, the most common question that parents and colleagues have been asking me all year is whether wearing a face mask will get in the way of children’s emotional learning and their ability to understand and respond to the emotions of others. Although the science is a bit slow, and there is very little direct work on how children respond to the emotions of people who are wearing masks, there is some research that might put your mind at ease.
First, it is important to acknowledge that children do get information from adults’ faces. Children, and especially babies, sometimes look to a parent’s face as a clue about what to do when a situation is uncertain—what scientists call “social referencing.” For example, babies avoid playing with a new toy if they see an adult react fearfully toward it (Mumme & Fernald, 2003; Mumme, Fernald, & Herrera, 1996). The same is true for a drop-off or potentially dangerous height: If babies see their mothers pose a negative or fearful face in response to the drop-off, they may not try to descend (Sorce, Emde, Campos, & Klinnert, 1985; Tamis-LeMonda, Adolph, Lobo, Karasik, Dimitropoulou, & Ishak, 2008).
But faces aren’t the only way infants and children can get this kind of information. In fact, there are lots of other places children can turn to for help; in the absence of a face, for example, they can use the tone of someone’s voice, their body language, or rely on good old-fashioned words. And by the ripe old age of 12 months, babies look a lot less at their mothers’ faces for information than you might think (Kretch, Franchak, & Adolph, 2014), likely relying on other sources instead.
There is also evidence that wearing a mask doesn’t necessarily make it impossible or even difficult to read the emotional expressions of others. In one very recent study, researchers presented 7- to 13-year-old children with images of adults posing for various emotional expressions. The faces were depicted with no face covering, wearing sunglasses, or wearing surgical masks. The children were able to accurately identify the emotions in all cases, whether the face was covered by a mask, sunglasses, or not at all (Ruba & Pollak, 2020).
In fact, similar studies have shown the same results for years. For example, in a classic task called “reading the mind in the eyes,” researchers have been asking for decades whether adults and children can identify the emotional facial expressions of others just from their eyes, which is essentially what we have to do when someone is wearing a mask. Adults typically do pretty well in this task, and they are just as accurate at identifying emotional expressions from a person’s eyes than from a person’s whole face (Baron-Cohen, Jolliffe, Mortimore, & Robertson, 1997). Children as young as age 6 and 7 are also pretty good at this task for most emotions, especially for anger and sadness (Guarnera et al., 2015).
Don’t believe me? Take a look at these photos of my 6-year-old son posing a bunch of different emotions with a mask on (left). How hard is it to tell what he’s expressing in each? And these are just photographs; in real life, we express emotions with more than just our faces—we use our voices, our actions, and our words to express what we’re thinking and feeling.
In all likelihood, children will still find a way to decipher how others are feeling while wearing a mask. In fact, researchers who have spent decades studying deaf children from Nicaragua who were never taught sign language found that they made up their own sign language to communicate with each other—a language that is now called Nicaraguan Sign Language (Senhas & Coppola, 2001). The point is, children are incredibly flexible learners, and they are great at finding ways to communicate.
There are a few caveats here. Most of the research I’ve talked about so far was done with typically developing children or infants older than about a year. What about younger infants who are learning about the emotions of others and how to communicate for the very first time? What about children with special needs who might not communicate as well as other children? In these cases, it’s important to remember that most of us aren’t wearing masks all the time, and perhaps not at all in our homes, so most infants and children likely still get a lot of experience looking at faces and communicating without masks on, even though mask-wearing is most common (and safe) when you leave the house.
This doesn’t mean that the COVID-19 pandemic won’t have any effect on our children’s emotional development in the short or long term. It certainly may, in ways we have yet to discover. But as we move towards better (and more vaccinated) times, hopefully, we won’t have to worry about things like the effects of wearing a face mask on children’s emotional learning for much longer and can go back to worrying about the things we worried about before the pandemic. I’m sure there were plenty. But for now, we can take some solace in the fact that children are quite flexible in terms of what and how they learn, and most of them are pretty resilient, especially with the protection of a face mask.
Baron‐Cohen, S., Jolliffe, T., Mortimore, C., & Robertson, M. (1997). Another advanced test of theory of mind: Evidence from very high functioning adults with autism or Asperger syndrome. Journal of Child psychology and Psychiatry, 38(7), 813-822.
Guarnera, M., Hichy, Z., Cascio, M. I., & Carrubba, S. (2015). Facial expressions and ability to recognize emotions from eyes or mouth in children. Europe's journal of psychology, 11(2), 183.
Kretch, K. S., Franchak, J. M., & Adolph, K. E. (2014). Crawling and walking infants see the world differently. Child development, 85(4), 1503-1518.
Mumme, D. L., & Fernald, A. (2003). The infant as onlooker: Learning from emotional reactions observed in a television scenario. Child development, 74(1), 221-237.
Mumme, D. L., Fernald, A., & Herrera, C. (1996). Infants' responses to facial and vocal emotional signals in a social referencing paradigm. Child development, 67(6), 3219-3237.
Ruba, A. L., & Pollak, S. D. (2020). Children’s emotion inferences from masked faces: Implications for social interactions during COVID-19. Plos one, 15(12), e0243708.
Sorce, J. F., Emde, R. N., Campos, J. J., & Klinnert, M. D. (1985). Maternal emotional signaling: its effect on the visual cliff behavior of 1-year-olds. Developmental psychology, 21(1), 195.
Tamis-LeMonda, C. S., Adolph, K. E., Lobo, S. A., Karasik, L. B., Ishak, S., & Dimitropoulou, K. A. (2008). When infants take mothers' advice: 18-month-olds integrate perceptual and social information to guide motor action. Developmental psychology, 44(3), 734.