Should young children be made to wear masks? According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the answer is a resounding yes.
The public health agency now urges all children over the age of 2 to wear masks, regardless of vaccination status. Of course, we can debate the idea of vaccinating kids in the first place. Forty-five percent of American parents are very much against the idea of vaccinating young children.
Although I am not qualified to debate the effects of vaccines, as a psychosocial specialist I consider myself qualified to comment on the effects of masks. Toddlers should not be made to wear masks. Here’s why.
Let’s start by asking the following: Do face masks actually work, and are they effective in protecting young children from contracting COVID-19?
A number of studies have shown a strong association between mask-wearing and lower rates of being infected with the virus. According to a report published by the ABC Science Collaborative, “proper masking is the most effective mitigation strategy to prevent secondary transmission in schools when COVID-19 is circulating and when vaccination is unavailable, or there is insufficient uptake.”
In reality, though, it probably has more to do with distancing and proper ventilation. As researchers in Georgia noted, improving “air circulation by opening windows and doors or using fans reduced COVID-19 cases by about one-third compared with schools that didn’t make changes in ventilation.”
In a recent BBC Future article, Dr. Mark Ng, an infectious disease specialist at Singhealth Polyclinics in Singapore, said masks may not be responsible for reducing transmission. Protective factors like “personal hand hygiene, safe distancing, and whether an area is well-ventilated may play a part” must also be considered, according to Ng.
So the efficacy of masks in protecting children from the virus is up for debate. What’s not up for debate, however, is the effect that masks have on the ways in which we interpret other people’s emotions and expressions.
With brain development, children undergo critical periods, or special time windows. Up until the age of 5, a child’s brain develops more than at any other time throughout his or her life. Understanding the term “critical period” is, well, critical to understanding why masks have a negative impact on a child’s development. During such periods, a child’s nervous system is particularly sensitive to certain stimuli, such as a mother’s touch or a father’s soothing voice. A child deprived of such experiences is likely to suffer in many ways, both psychologically and physically. Before learning how to effectively communicate, children learn to recognize basic emotions. They must first learn how to decode complex expressions.
In the aforementioned BBC Future article, Dr. Kang Lee, a developmental specialist, warned that a community (or a country) where masking is the norm may hinder children’s ability to interpret emotions like “happiness, sadness, fear, anger, and so on.” Facial visibility, as Kang so accurately noted, “is a key part of such development and masking can hinder that process,” as we “learn emotions mostly through the face.”
By the age of 2, according to peer-reviewed research, “children develop more abstract concepts of emotion.” This includes an ability to decipher other people’s “facial movements and actions.” A recent paper published in Frontiers in Psychology studied the effects of masks on the social and emotional development of toddlers. The authors “showed that the human capacity to read emotions from facial configurations when a face mask is present becomes particularly reduced in toddlers.” The authors suggested that this can be explained by “different age-related developmental stages of face processing associated with emotional reasoning.” Privation of facial visual features “might alter or delay the development of social skills associated with face perception in early childhood.” Such conclusions should not be ignored.
Another credible paper, published in PLOS One, a peer-reviewed journal, found that face masks only serve to “decreases facial expression recognition, confidence in expression identification, as well as the perception of intensity for all expressions.”
Even more concerning is the effect masks have on verbal communication. After all, children learn language not just through listening, but also through observation. If teachers, caregivers, classmates, and the broader community are masked, this makes language acquisition particularly difficult. This is especially true for children with special needs. In the United States, one in every nine children under the age of 18 receives special education services.
In the aforementioned BBC Future piece, Stephen Camarata, a professor of hearing and speech sciences at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee, discussed the effects of masks on children with disabilities, especially those with impaired hearing. As these children “use facial features to fill in the information they’re not hearing,” masks only serve to deprive them of critical cues, he warned.
So, even if masks are an effective way of preventing the transmission of COVID-19, what price are we willing to pay? How are masks shaping the children of today and the adults of tomorrow? These are important questions to ask.
Masks might—and I stress might—be an effective way of combating the virus, but they’re also an effective way of hindering a child’s development.
Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.