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Are you happy or sad? Are we masking children's ability to read emotions?

Photo by Izzy Park on Unsplash

In the summer of 2021, as school district in the country were announcing the mask mandates as part of their plans to safely reopen schools in midst of covid 19 pandemic, series of memes made round in social media. While their content and image varied, their basic messaging of the post still remain the same. Seeing each other wearing mask is detrimental to their overall development. Infact the masking rules could lead to psychological and social damage for kids across the globe.

Parents are worried that making their kids wear a face mask could have unintended consequences. They want to know whether their kid will be able to understand what their teachers are saying. Or the social and emotional nuances of what is being communicated to them so that they can learn how to appropriately respond to them. They are worried if it is going to cause unnecessary anxiety which is going to get in the way of their normal development.

There are definitely lot of questions.

Whether it’s the righteous joy embodied by an open-mouthed laugh or the subtle contempt of a curled lip, people of all ages rely on others’ faces to help them navigate their social environments. Our expressions, whether we intend them to or not, convey all manner of vital information. Those bashful smiles and pursed lips reveal quite a bit about what we feel—and offer guidance to others on how to best respond to us. This is especially the case if our words and expressions do not match.

“There are a lot of things that are really important for human communication,” says Seth Pollak, head of the Child Emotion Lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. “And human faces are definitely one of the most important of them.”


In order to make our way in the world, human beings, like other animals, need to be able to recognize objects. The world is full of things that can help us or hinder us as we navigate our surroundings; distinguishing between the two is vital. Faces, however, are a special kind of object. So special, in fact, that they have their own specific real estate in the brain, the fusiform face area in the temporal lobe, which is solely responsible for facial recognition.

By just looking at a face you can see what group or race they belong to, their age, and whether they are male or female. Once you make social contact, the face also is a source of emotional information. The brain can very efficiently manipulate the facial muscles to convey different kinds of emotions, even extremely subtle changes in our emotions. It’s not a surprise that the brain has set aside a special area so we can quickly perceive and process this information.

No sooner do infants enter the world than they start looking for faces. A newborn will quickly lock on to any faces in the environment. Their eyes are driven to faces and, within 28 hours of age, they can already recognize their own mother’s face.


it is not surprising that many now wonder about what cloaking half the face may mean not only for development, but also for social and emotional processing. With masks concealing the suggestive contortions of the mouth and nose—which can signal the difference between a smile and a sneer—how might day-to-day mask-wearing affect how we perceive others, and they us?

I asked my 5-year-old son “How was your first day at school? Were your friends happy to be in school?” I asked him whether their faces depicted anger, fear, disgust, happiness, sadness, or neutral emotion. He was not confident and said I could feel anything weather they are happy or said as I can’t see they are smiling or not. Given that emotional expressions are one of the most efficient ways of communicating to other people, this is something that does have an impact. People will have to rely on other cues, like context or a person’s tone or gestures, to help them understand what emotion a person may be trying to express.


Despite that lack of efficiency, I don’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.

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. 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.

In the end I just want to say that despite ongoing concerns about masks and emotional learning, all of the scientists interviewed were adamant that the risks of not wearing a mask—and potentially being infected with 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, 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.

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. 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. 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.

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