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Do Masks Impede Children’s Development?

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Topic: Do Masks Impede Children’s Development?

Nothing about masks and masking has come easily in the United States, it seems. There were mixed and confusing messages back at the beginning of the pandemic, then political discussion that got in the way of sane public health decision-making, as well as circulating disinformation, anger, and a certain amount of shaming and finger-pointing, by those who wanted masks and by those who didn’t. But evidence keeps accumulating that masks help keep us all safer.

Now, with many families thinking about the specifics of children returning to at least some classroom instruction and to child care, pediatrician colleagues who are helping to set guidelines are getting questions from parents about whether masks — on the children or on their caregivers — may interfere with children’s development, including speech, language and social interactions.

Kang Lee, a professor of applied psychology and human development at the University of Toronto, who studies the development of facial recognition skills in children, pointed to three potential problems masks might pose for children in interacting with classmates or teachers. First, he said, kids under the age of 12 may have difficulty recognizing people, because they often focus on individual features.

Second, and perhaps more important, he said, “a lot of our emotional information, we display through movement of our facial musculature.” Because that musculature and therefore that information will be obscured by a mask, he said, children may have issues with “emotional recognition and social interaction.”

And finally, Dr. Lee said, children may have problems with speech recognition; even though we tend to think of speech communication as taking place through sound, he said, a great deal of information can be communicated visually.

Topic Discussed: Do Masks Impede Children’s Development?