There has been some concern that the face masks used at school during the pandemic may be hurting younger children's development, but this research letter published in JAMA Pediatrics suggests that kids recognize emotions about as well as they could without masks.
For this study, researchers from University Hospital Lausanne in Switzerland showed 90 pictures at random to nearly 300 children ages 3 to 6. The photos showed actors who expressed joy, anger or sadness. In half of the images, actors wore masks.
They were asked to either name the emotion, point to a card showing emoticons with these emotions, tell the researcher that they didn't know the answer or say that they wanted to quit the experiment.
The children got most of the answers right and were able to match the emotions to the picture on the card at a nearly identical rate, whether the figure was wearing a mask or not.
Kids described the correct emotion more than 70% of the time when the actor was maskless and got it right more than 67% of the time when the figure wore a mask. The older the kids, the more answers they got correct. About a quarter of preschoolers had a harder time distinguishing sadness from anger and about 21% occasionally confused joy for anger or sadness.
"Actual face masks depicted in static pictures were significantly associated with emotion recognition in healthy preschool children, although differences were small and effect sizes were weak," the study said.
Ashley Ruba, a developmental psychology expert in the Child Emotion Lab at University of Wisconsin-Madison, was not affiliated with this study, but has done similar work during the pandemic. She said she saw similar results with her work.
"Even with masks being worn, little kids can probably still make reasonable inferences about other people's emotions," Ruba said. "I like to point out that the face isn't the most important way we communicate our emotions, it is only one way. We also use tone of voice, we have body posture, we have other kinds of contextual clues that kids and adults can use to figure out how people are feeling."
For language processing, it is important for kids to learn to lip read, but it's clear from the research, she said, that a mask is not going to hurt a child's development.
"The risks of contracting Covid from not wearing a mask are probably going to outweigh any slight issue about communication that kids might have," she said.
As a developmental psychologist, she thinks there are many more aspects of the pandemic that could hurt a child's development, like from the social isolation they've had from peers when they've had to stay at home from school or if a parent were to lose a job, for example.
"Masks are probably at the bottom of the list of things to be concerned about," she said.