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February 8, 2022 3:45 pm

Children Find it Harder to Recognize People Wearing Masks, Israeli-Canadian Study Finds

avatar by Sharon Wrobel

School-aged children were shown masked and unmasked faces both upright and inverted. Photo: York University

School-aged children find it more difficult than adults to recognize people wearing masks, which could potentially affect their ability to socialize and make friends, Israeli and Canadian researchers have found.

The joint study, carried out by Canada’s York University and Israel’s Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, found that it is 20 percent more difficult for children to recognize masked faces, compared to a corresponding rate of 15 percent for adults.

Face masks conceal the lower half of the face — the mouth and part of the nose area — disrupting “the typical, holistic way that faces are processed,” said the study’s senior author, Professor Erez Freud of York University. “If holistic processing is impaired and recognition is impaired, there is a possibility it could impair children’s ability to navigate through social interactions with their peers and teachers, and this could lead to issues forming important relationships.”

“Given the importance of faces to social interactions, this is something we need to pay attention to,” he added.

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In an effort to curb the transmission of COVID-19, governments around the world have mandated mask-wearing in public spaces and for teaching staff and children in educational institutions.

While previous research has found that mask-wearing can impact facial recognition in adults, little was known about the effect on children. The new study, published in the peer-reviewed academic journal Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications, was conducted among 72 children, ages six to 14. The researchers relied on the kids’ version of the Cambridge face memory test to determine their ability to recognize masked and unmasked faces.

“Faces are among the most important visual stimuli. We use facial information to determine different attributes about a person, including their gender, age, mood, and intentions,” said Freud. “We use this information to navigate through social interactions.”

The researchers recommended that future research focus on the effects “of wearing masks on children’s educational performance.”

The study’s publication comes amid a heated debate over mask mandates in schools. White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki on Monday reiterated that universal masking in schools “still remains our recommendation,” as the governors of four US states — Connecticut, Delaware, New Jersey, and Oregon — announced plans to roll back the mandate in coming weeks.

“The data and science — where we get that guidance from is the CDC [Centers for Disease Control and Prevention] and our health and medical experts.  Their guidance remains — continues to be that, in schools, people should mask up,” Psaki told reporters during a press briefing. “It is also true that at some point, when the science and the data warrants, of course our hope is that that’s no longer the recommendation.”

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