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Study: Face masks on adults have limited impact on kids' socialization

By Brian Dunleavy
Study: Face masks on adults have limited impact on kids' socialization
Teachers and staff members wearing masks did not adversely affect children's interactions with them, according to a study. File Photo by John Angelillo/UPI | License Photo

Dec. 23 (UPI) -- Schoolteachers and daycare center staff members who wear face masks to prevent COVID-19 spread have a "minimal" effect on children's social interactions, according to the authors of a study published Wednesday by the journal PLOS ONE.

Although youngsters in the study experienced some difficulty interpreting the emotions of adults based on facial expressions because a portion of their faces were covered, these challenges were surmountable and did not adversely affect interactions with them, the researchers said.

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However, some children "may still feel isolated or cut off from others if they are unable to see positive smiles" of teachers and caregivers, study co-author Ashley L. Ruba told UPI.

"Children can likely make reasonably accurate inferences about other people's emotions, even though people are often wearing masks," said Ruba, a postdoctoral fellow in psychology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

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"This should parents' minds at ease about how mask-wearing might impact this aspect of child development," she said.

After initially closing during the early stages of the COVID-19 pandemic in March, many schools and daycare centers across the country began to reopen as the summer drew to a close and parents engaged in "non-essential" occupations returned to work.

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Guidelines issued by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommended that teachers and staff members wear masks, and that facilities be set up to allow for social distancing and frequent hand-washing to help prevent virus spread.

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Data released earlier this month by the CDC suggested that these measures helped reduce the risk for outbreaks in schools and other facilities for children.

For this study, Ruba and her colleagues assessed the impact of adult mask-wearing on social interactions and behaviors in 81 children from 7 to 13 years old.

The children were shown multiple images of adults with facial expressions conveying anger, sadness and fear -- both with and without face coverings -- and asked to interpret how the people in the images were feeling, the researchers said.

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Although they generally were able to more accurately interpret adult emotions in uncovered faces, the children in many cases correctly identified anger, sadness and fear in the faces of those who wore masks, the researchers said.

The findings suggest that masks worn by adults in the presence may have a "minimal" impact on children's social interactions, they said.

However, based on the results, it's also "unlikely that children draw emotional inferences from facial configurations alone," with body posture, facial coloration and tone of voice also playing a role, according to the researchers.

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"In terms of the ability to infer emotions in other people, mask-wearing shouldn't interfere too much," Ruba said.

"When you are trying to convey emotions to children, or anyone else, while wearing a mask, label how you are feeling [through] gesture and use your voice, [so] children can use these cues to infer how you are feeling," she said.

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