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Masks May Not Stop Kids from Reading Emotions

holding mask

Dec. 24, 2020 -- Masks don’t seem to keep kids from reading facial expressions entirely, according to a new study.

Researchers showed 80 kids between the ages of 7 and 13 a variety of faces that were showing emotions like sadness, anger, and fear. Some of the faces were uncovered, others had masks on, and some were wearing sunglasses. The kids were asked to assign an emotion to each face.

The kids were correct about the uncovered faces as often as 66% of the time. Masks made the task more difficult. When the face was covered by a mask, kids correctly identified sadness about 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," says study author Ashley Ruba, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Wisconsin-Madison's Child Emotion Lab.

Sunglasses made anger and fear difficult to identify, suggesting the eyes and eyebrows are important to those facial expressions.

Fear was the trickiest emotion for kids to spot behind a mask. It was often confused with surprise.

Still, researchers say parents shouldn’t be worried about the study findings since reading a face isn’t the only way to understand how a person is feeling. Chances are kids are developing their emotional intelligence during the pandemic just fine.

"Emotions aren't conveyed solely through your face," Ruba said, in a news release. "Vocal inflections, the way that someone positions their body, and what's going on around them, all that other information helps us make better predictions about what someone is feeling."

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ScienceDaily, Science News: “Covering faces around kids won't mask emotions.”

PLOS One: “Children’s emotion inferences from masked faces: Implications for social interactions during COVID-19.”

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