masks and emotional learning, all of the scientists t that the risks of not wearing a mask—and potentially ng from long-term health consequences as a result— face-relayed social information.
Understanding the Trade-Offs Despite ongoing concerns about
Unlike Carbon’s study, this experiment tested the children only on photos depicting sadness, anger, and fear after the photos were digitally altered to add a surgical mask or sunglasses. The Wisconsin researchers also found that study participants were less accurate at reading emotions on masked compared to unmasked faces, but their accuracy was still above chance. Given that, outside the laboratory, children will have access to the other contextual cues to emotion that Carbon mentioned. Ruba says she and Pollak don’t believe the inaccuracy caused by mask wearing will lead to any long-term deficits. “While there was some loss of emotional information, kids were still able to make a reasonable guess about what the person in the photograph was expressing,” she explains. “I know parents are very worried about the effect of masks on kids being able to learn this kind of social information. But we found they are still surprisingly good at figuring out the information they need to make these judgments.” Certainly, a University of Parma study supports this idea that some emotional information is coming through. The 96 adults, with an average age of about 36 years, were able to correctly recognize happy, angry, and neutral faces, even when they were covered by a mask or scarf. Carbon says the subtle differences seen across these studies may be due to the kinds of emotional photos experimenters used. “We saw that people had difficulty distinguishing happy and neutral,” he says. “Emotional expressions in faces are a method of very fast communication between people. With a mask, you may need to use more words or find other ways to get your point across. It isn’t that you cannot get this information. It’s just that communication becomes less efficient.” Filling in the Gaps Despite that lack of efficiency, Carbon doesn’t think that social or emotional development will be derailed by increased mask-wearing. To start, people don’t need to rely solely on a static photo of a masked face to glean emotional data. Other dynamic cues—including gestures, tone, and posture, and contextual information—will help fill in the blanks. LoBue adds that younger children, who may be in the process of learning how to read emotion in faces, can still interact with family and close friends without masks at home—and see the faces of their unmasked teachers through virtual platforms. They are not completely bereft of facial cues. “If you worry a child is having trouble reading a masked face, you can encourage them to ask questions,” she says. “There’s no reason why we can’t prep children to raise their hand and ask for more information if they need it, whether the other person they are communicated with is masked or unmasked.”
masks and emotional learning, all of the scientists interviewed for this piece were adamant that the risks of not wearing a mask—and potentially being infectedwith Covid-19 and suffering from long-term health consequences as a result—far outweigh risks related to the loss of face-relayed social information. “Faces are not the only place we get this important information,” says Carbon. “There is also information in what people say, their verbal descriptions, their tone of voice, their gestures. Even if part of this facial information is missing, we can compensate for it. It may be a little harder to do, but children are really quite adaptive. They will learn what they need to learn.” For her part, Ruba worries more about other burdens, including the anxiety and social isolation many children may be experiencing. She argues that those issues may have more power to affect children’s cognitive and social development than a nose and mouth covering. Numerous studies suggest that the pandemic is leading to increased rates of depression and anxiety in both kids and adults, but it is hard to distinguish what aspects of pandemic life, exactly, may be influencing such trends. “People are focused on the mask-wearing as something that will hurt kids, but what may be of more concern is that so many children are isolated from their friends or struggling with virtual school,” says Ruba. “We don’t know yet what may have long-term effects on development or mental health. These are things that we should be looking at carefully as we move forward.” While headlines abound about all the things that children may be missing as a consequence of pandemic-related infection control practices, most of those stories are based on anecdotes and conjecture. With many scientists now having to work remotely to continue social distancing themselves, some researchers are unable to do their work outside the laboratory—and studies that examine issues as complex as the effects of virtual learning, reduced peer interaction, and the loss of loved ones to the virus on children’s emotional and social development can be challenging to pursue. As such, Pollak argues that mask-wearing should be the least of those worries—and that, even with reduced emotional content in facial expressions, children will find a way to learn the social skills they need to learn, grow, and thrive. “The one thing we know is that kids’ brains really are resilient,” he says. “Generations from now, their grandchildren are going to ask them what it was like to live through the pandemic. They may have plenty of stories about the hardships they may have experienced, but no one’s cognitive or social development is going to be irreversibly damaged as a result of what we are going through now.” l
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