A new study from York University published in the journal Cognitive Research: Principles and Implications found that face masks are potentially detrimental to children’s development by impairing the way their brain recognizes faces.
The study analyzed 72 children between the ages of 6 to 14 years old on the “Cambridge Face Memory Test – Kids (CFMT-K), a validated measure of face perception performance. Faces were presented with or without masks and across two orientations (upright/inverted).”
“The inclusion of face masks led to a profound deficit in face perception abilities,” the study found. “This decrement was more pronounced in children compared to adults, but only when task difficulty was adjusted across the two age groups. Additionally, children exhibited reliable correlations between age and the CFMT-K score for upright faces for both the mask and no-mask conditions. Finally, as previously observed in adults, children also showed qualitative differences in the processing of masked versus non-masked faces. Specifically, holistic processing, a hallmark of face perception, was disrupted for masked faces as suggested by a reduced face-inversion effect.”
The researchers explained that their findings “provide evidence for substantial quantitative and qualitative alterations in the processing of masked faces in school-age children.”
“Changes in face recognition performance … of partially occluded faces could have significant effects on children’s social interactions with their peers and their ability to form relationships with educators,” the study concluded.
“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, the study’s senior author.
“Not only do masks hinder the ability of children to recognize faces, but they also disrupt the typical, holistic way that faces are processed,” Freud added.
While the World Health Organization does not recommend masks for children under age 6, and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control recommends against masks for any children in primary school, the CDC still recommends that all children 2 and older should be masked in school regardless of vaccination status.
However, it is also unclear if masking children is effective at slowing the spread of COVID-19. For example, a study published by the CDC analyzed more than 90,000 elementary-school students and was unable to show statistically significant benefits for masking students — a finding that was notably excluded from the study’s summary.
“That a masking requirement of students failed to show independent benefit is a finding of consequence and great interest,” Vinay Prasad, an associate professor in University of California, San Francisco’s Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics, told New York Magazine. “It should have been included in the summary.”
“The summary gives the impression that only masking of staff was studied … when in reality there was this additional important detection about a student-masking requirement not having a statistical impact,” epidemiologist Tracy Hoeg, the senior author of a separate CDC study on COVID-19 transmission in schools, told the magazine.