If the masks protect from the virus, unfortunately they also shield our emotions and very young children even show that they cannot understand the emotions of sadness or happiness. The Italian research team led by Monica Gori of the IIT Unit for Visually Impaired People has in fact verified that 4 out of 10 children aged 3 to 5 have trouble recognizing emotions of people wearing surgical masks. A side effect of the prevention measures in the context of the Covid-19 health emergency that demonstrates, for the first time, how the use of masks it could affect the proper development of social interaction skills in children. The study by researchers from the Italian Institute of Technology was published in Frontiers in Psychology.
Already a document drawn up by the World Health Organization and Unicef provides a guide to decision makers and to authorities in public and professional contexts on the use of masks for children in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic by discouraging exposure to the use of masks when dealing with children up to five years, since in that range of age, important developmental milestones are reached. In addition, even for older children, WHO recommends carefully weighing the benefits of wearing masks against potential harms which include social, psychological, communication and learning problems. And the study by the IIT research team led by Monica Gori fits into this context.
The Italian study of the IIT “for the first time for the preschool age group helps to define the measures that can be adopted to reduce the impact of wearing surgical masks in children. In fact – underlines the Institute – even if between 3 and 5 years there is no obligation to wear masks, however, children are exposed to the use of such preventive measures in different social contexts and educational daily “. For their analysis, the IIT researchers prepared a questionnaire containing images of people with and without masks and shown through a computer, a tablet or a smartphone to 119 subjects including 31 children between 3 and 5 years old, 49 children between 6 and 8 years and 39 adults between 18 and 30 years.
The people involved in the research of the IIT – independently or with the assistance of parents in the case of the youngest – they had to try to recognize facial expressions, with and without surgical mask, who expressed different emotions such as: happiness, sadness, fear and anger. The results showed that children between 3 and 5 years old are able to recognize facial expressions that express happiness and sadness when covered by the mask only 40% of the time. The percentages rise if we consider the other age groups: between 6 and 8 years (55-65%) and among adults (70-80%) but in general – the researchers note – “a difficulty in all age groups “in interpreting these emotions expressed with the face partially covered by the mask.
As for the other emotions, the researchers report that “there have been better results, but we can say that the range that has more difficulty to recognize the emotions expressed with the mask remains that of preschool children. “Monica Gori explains that “The experiment was conducted in the very early stages of the pandemic in 2020, the masks were still a novelty at the time for everyone. We hope that today children have been able to adapt. “The scientist recalls that” children’s brains are endowed with great plasticity and in these days we are carrying out tests to verify whether the understanding of emotions in children has increased or not “.
Maria Bianca Amadeo Iit researcher and co-author of the study points out that “in the study we worked with children and adults who did not have any kind of disability”. “Obviously – he adds – these observations are even more important when it comes to children with disabilities that involve difficulties in social interaction”.
“For example – notes Lucia Schiatti, IIT researcher and co-author of the research – visual disabilities already imply great difficulties in social interactions, for these subjects it will be even more important to focus on possible preventive measures or specific rehabilitation activities”.
In the coming years, the work aimed at investigating what it was will be fundamental the actual impact of this precautionary health measure on the ability to interact of children with both disabilities and
children without disabilities, but in the meantime, the Iit study suggests evaluating the use of transparent masks for all operators in contact with the age group 3-5 years or the creation of specific training courses to teach children the recognition of emotions only through observation of the eyes.