• Robb G. Best

Kids Can Read Emotions Through Face Masks, Study Finds

In these days of pandemic-related social distancing and required face masks, you might find yourself wondering about the impact of covering faces on child development. After all, we use facial cues constantly to analyze and evaluate social situations. However, a new study from the University of Wisconsin-Madison suggests you may be able to put that particular worry to bed.

“We now have this situation where adults and kids have to interact all the time with people whose faces are partly covered," says postdoctoral researcher Ashley Ruba of UW-Madison’s Child Emotion Lab, "and a lot of adults are wondering if that’s going to be a problem for children’s emotional development."

The researchers recruited 80 children between the ages of 7 and 13. These children were shown pictures of faces. Some faces were uncovered, some were partly obscured by a surgical-style mask, and some covered the eyes with a pair of sunglasses. The children were told to label each picture with one of six emotions, including fear, anger, or surprise.

How did they do? When it came to the uncovered faces, the children guessed right as much as 66% of the time. This may seem low, but with six options to choose from, it was certainly well above random chance (17%). When the people in the pictures wore face masks, the percentage of correct guesses did noticeably go down. (They correctly identified sadness 28% of the time, anger 27% of the time, and fear 18% of the time.)

“Not surprisingly, it was tougher with parts of the faces covered. But even with a mask covering the nose and mouth, the kids were able to identify these emotions at a rate better than chance,” Ruba says.

By comparing the results between the sunglasses pictures and the face mask pictures, researchers were able to get a better sense of which emotions are read primarily through the eyes and eyebrows (anger, fear) and which emotions rely more on the mouth for expression (fear).

It's also worth pointing out that the children were viewing these pictures in essentially a vacuum, without other social cues like body language, word choice, or vocal tone. With all of these considerations in place, the fact that children were still able to perform better than random chance at judging the emotions of the mask-obscured pictures is impressive--and reassuring, says Ruba.

“I hope this settles some nerves. Kids are really resilient. They’re able to adjust to the information they’re given, and it doesn’t look like wearing masks will slow down their development in this case.”

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