Children have harder time recognizing masked faces than adults

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Children have harder time recognizing masked faces than adults

A new study from Canada found that children have a harder time recognizing faces of those wearing COVID-19 masks than adults, raising fears about their ability to socialize and make friends.

The masks, which have become an essential part of the daily lives of millions of students in America for nearly two years, change the typical way children’s brains recognize faces, the York University study found. 

According to the study, published on Monday in the journal Cognitive Research: Principles & Implications, children have a 20 percent impairment rate for recognizing masked faces. Adults, meanwhile, had a 15 percent impairment rate for identifying people with the face coverings.

“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. We use this information to navigate through social interactions,” said York University assistant professor Erez Freud of Faculty of Health, the study’s senior author.

The study analyzed the results of 72 children between the ages of six and 14 on the Cambridge Face Memory Test, a valid test on humans’ ability to recognize faces. The children were asked to identify faces of people both with or without the masks in upright and upside-down positions.

Masks have made it difficult for humans to process faces holistically rather than by its individual features, the study found.

“Not only do masks hinder the ability of children to recognise faces, but they also disrupt the typical, holistic way that faces are processed,” says Freud.

The study found that children have a 20 percent impairment rate for recognizing masked faces. Adults were found to have a 15 percent rate.
The study found that children have a 20 percent impairment rate for recognizing masked faces. Adults were found to have a 15 percent rate.
Sipa USA via AP

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

Parents nationwide have rallied against mask mandates that force their children to wear the face coverings in school, claiming that the masks have made it difficult for their children to make friends. The mask-wearing experience has been especially difficult for those with disabilities.

On Monday, New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy announced that the state plans to end its school mask mandate in March, instead allowing school districts to create their own mask policies.

New Jersey’s move puts immense pressure on New York City and state politicians as they face mounting calls to end the imposed mask mandates for schools.

According to one of the study's authors, the mask wearing could "impair children’s ability to navigate through social interactions with their peers and teachers."
According to one of the study’s authors, the mask wearing could “impair children’s ability to navigate through social interactions with their peers and teachers.”
AP Photo/John Minchillo, File

New York’s statewide mask mandate for schools is set to expire on Feb. 21 and Gov. Kathy Hochul hasn’t publicly indicated whether she intends to make a change.

The Big Apple has its own school mask mandates, which Mayor Eric Adams adamantly supported as recently as Jan. 25, saying he believes mandating masks is a way to keep city students in the classrooms.

The World Health Organization does not recommend children under age 5 wearing masks and the European equivalent of the CDC doesn’t recommend them for children under age 12. In contrast, the United States recommends masks for everyone over the age of 2, NPR reported.

Manfred Spitzer, a psychiatrist and a cognitive neuroscientist in Germany, told NPR young children need to see full faces during their young developmental years.

“Kids need to train up their face recognition,” he says, and they need to see full faces to learn to identify emotions as well as to learn language. “Babies were never designed just to see the upper half of the face and to infer the lower half; even adults have a hard time doing this.”

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