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Masks don’t mask emotions from kids, study finds

Published: Jan. 28, 2021 at 12:55 PM CST|Updated: Jan. 28, 2021 at 5:21 PM CST
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MADISON, Wis. (WMTV) - There are concerns that masks are keeping kids from understanding emotions. Two UW-Madison psychologists researched the topic and recently published their findings.

“When COVID started, among parents and teachers there was a lot of speculation about what mask wearing was going to mean for everyday social interactions and people started being concerned, reasonably, about how all of this was going to impact children,” says Dr. Ashley Ruba, a postdoctoral fellow at UW-Madison’s Child Emotion Lab.

Dr. Ruba put those concerns to an empirical test. She and Professor Seth Pollak had conducted a study prior to the pandemic with 80 kids, ages 7-13. The data became especially relevant when nearly everyone started wearing a mask as the pandemic unfolded in 2020.

“We had kids play a computer game where they were looking at faces. They were all showing different emotions, some of the faces were uncovered, some of them were covered with a mask, some of them were covered with sunglasses and we had kids basically guess what emotion they thought each person was expressing,” says Ruba.

UW-Madison's Child Emotion Lab figure shows faces with different expressions
UW-Madison's Child Emotion Lab figure shows faces with different expressions(Dr. Ashley Ruba)

As you might expect, kids were less accurate in identifying emotions on the faces with a mask or sunglasses. “But what was interesting is that kid’s performance compared to the mask and the sunglasses condition didn’t differ,” says Ruba.

The children were also guessing correctly at a rate better than chance. Fear was the most difficult emotion to identify, commonly confused with surprise. Whereas sadness seemed easier to identify, likely because it doesn’t share as many facial configurations with other emotions.

“What we took from the study was that even though there is some loss of information obviously when you’re covering up parts of your face, it doesn’t seem to be any more detrimental to kids than wearing sunglasses, for example,” says Ruba.

Dr. Ruba hopes the conclusion that mask wearing will not slow down development will help settle some nerves. “Hopefully it’s reassuring to people that we can still figure it out even if we are covering parts of our face,” says Ruba.

Ruba says it’s important to note that emotions aren’t only expressed through the face. “There’s tone of voice, there’s body posture and there’s also overall context in which different emotions are expressed,” says Ruba.

Recognizing emotions is just one angle Ruba thinks researchers will continue to examine during and following the pandemic.

“It would be interesting to look at different aspects of child development. Language development, for example, I think is another area people have been concerned about, especially with young kids. We know that kids can read lips, people in the deaf community can also read lips and kind of rely on that to communicate with other people,” says Ruba.

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