UW-Madison study examines masks' impact on kids' emotional development

Cloaked in masks and limiting close interaction, the repercussions of the COVID-19 pandemic have many people worried about the effects on different aspects of development in children.

"We just wanted to provide some imperial support to either back up these concerns or suggest that parents, that there is not much to worry about in this particular aspect," said Ashley Ruba, a post-doctoral research fellow in the UW-Madison psychology department.

Ruba conducted a study involving more than 8 kids, ages 7-13. In the study, kids were shown people displaying different emotions -- with faces either completely uncovered, covered with a mask or covered in sunglasses. The kids then had to tell what emotion each person was feeling.

"Interestingly, children’s ability to infer other emotions on people didn’t differ whether the face was wearing glasses or a mask, so that suggests that mask-wearing does not inhibit children’s ability to make these inferences above and beyond wearing sunglasses, which is something children see in everyday lives," Ruba said.

Ruba said sunglasses made anger and fear difficult to identify. Fear was often confused with surprise in those behind a mask. Still, she said emotions are not conveyed solely through the face -- eyes and other visuals gave clues. 

"You can use tone of voice, you can look at how people are positioning their bodies, the broader context in which different emotions are being expressed. Kids can pick up on all of these things," said Ruba.

"It’ll definitely be a new normal, but kids will adjust."

Ashley Ruba

When it comes to infants and young children, things may be different as they learn through emotions and interactions.

Ruba said that’s why many day care workers are using clear masks to help provide mouth cues for emotional and language development.

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