Two Thirds of Preschoolers Correctly Identified Emotions of Masked Adults

Heidi Splete

November 15, 2021

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A majority of healthy preschoolers were able to recognize emotions shown in static pictures of adults with and without face masks, based on data from a cross-sectional study of 276 children.

Some are concerned about the effects of adults working in preschools wearing face masks on the ability of young children to learn to recognize emotions, study author Juliane Schneider, MD, of University Hospital Lausanne (Switzerland), and colleagues wrote. Previous studies using photographs of faces with digitally added masks have suggested that young children's emotional recognition was worse with masked faces.

In the study published in JAMA Pediatrics, the researchers tested the impact of masks on the ability of preschool children to identify joy, anger, and sadness. The study included 135 girls and 141 boys aged 36-72 months with a mean age of 52.4 months. The tests were conducted at nine daycare centers.

Children were shown photographs of 15 actors (5 men and 10 women) with and without surgical face masks. The total data set included 90 pictures illustrating joy, anger, and sadness. The children were shown the pictures at random, and they could either name the emotion, point to a card with emoticons showing the three emotions, or respond "I don't know" or "quit the experiment." Test sessions lasted approximately 7 minutes per child. Effect sizes were calculated using X2 and Cramer V tests.

Overall, 68.8% of the children correctly identified the emotion portrayed; the correct response rate was 70.6% for faces without face masks and 66.9% for those with face masks. Correct recognition of joy was significantly higher for faces without masks than for those with masks (94.8% vs. 87.3), as was correct recognition of sadness (54.1% vs. 48.9%; P < .001 for both). Recognition of anger was not significantly different for unmasked and masked faces (62.2% vs. 64.6%, P = .10).

No significant differences in correct responses appeared between boys and girls and the rate of correct responses increased significantly with age. The rates of "I don't know," and "quit the experiment" responses were 3.1% and 2.2%, respectively. In an analysis of incorrect responses, approximately 25% of the children confused anger and sadness, and 21% misidentified joy for images of anger or sadness.

"Overall, participants in this study, who had been exposed to face masks for nearly a year, recognized emotions on pictures better than has been reported in previous research, even with face masks," the researchers wrote.

The study findings were limited by several factors including the use of static pictures versus real individuals, which limits generalizability, and the lack of data on children with developmental issues, the researchers noted.

Despite relatively small differences and weak effect size (Cramer V scores of 0.2 or less for all), the results show a stronger recognition of emotion, compared with other studies, and highlight the importance of investigating the impact of face masks on other aspects of child development as the COVID-19 pandemic persists, the researchers concluded.

The study received no outside funding. The researchers had no relevant financial conflicts to disclose.

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