Why Mask Wearing Won't Hinder Social Development For Most Children

Published: Tuesday, July 14, 2020 - 12:35pm
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LAUREN GILGER: Faces are incredibly important to infants and toddlers; reading and connecting to them is key to their development. So now that so many faces around us are partially covered by masks, what effect might that have on how they learn to relate to other people? And for that matter, how might social distancing and all of the social cues that come along with body language shape that next generation? To get some answers, I got ahold of ASU's Denise Bodman. She's a principal lecturer at ASU's T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics, and she has taught infant and toddler development for 20 years. And we began with infants. They learn so much from faces. What happens when they are obscured?

DENISE BODMAN: To me, it's really interesting because infants love faces. I mean, from the time they are born, they will stare at your face. And when they get older, they continue to — their favorite thing to look at is a face. Not brightly colored rooms, not brightly colored mobiles, but a face. In fact, they'll imitate faces. But all of this is really important for communication, because communication is important for us as human beings. So it makes sense that infants are immediately attuned to faces. It seems that our facial expressions are biologically based. It's in our genes. They're universal. People all over the world have the same facial expression for happiness, as for sadness. So even children who are born congenitally blind will exhibit spontaneously the same facial expressions as sighted children. Now, if a mother, for example, does not look at her infant and stares to the left or to the right, babies get really upset and they will try to find ways to get mom to look back at them face-to-face. So yes, faces are really important for babies.

GILGER: So what does it mean then, if we're wearing masks for kids' sort of social emotional development, if they can't be in a preschool or if they can be in a preschool or around other kids or around their family. And people are wearing masks when they're out in the world. Does that impair the sort of way they learn to communicate with the world around them?

BODMAN: If there's one thing that I would be worried about, it would be children who have hearing impairments, even temporary hearing impairments, like if you have a child who has ear infections, intermittent ear infections. We constantly tell parents, "Always have your child look at your face when you talk to them," because our face does give us clues. So our facial expressions do give us clues to people's emotions when they are paired especially with verbal cues. Being able to see somebody's lips gives us cues to what people are saying — it helps us to understand more of what they're saying. So these kinds of things are important. I'm not saying that ... it's all genetics. They are important, but maybe we don't need to worry about it so much in terms of children seeing people with masks. If it was me and I was a caregiver of an infant, I might consider wearing a see-through mask, a clear mask, so that the child could start seeing whole face expressions, because it does give children more information about what's going on.

GILGER: Yeah, yeah. You mentioned kids with hearing impairments. We've heard a little bit reported about that. What about children with special needs, maybe children on the autism spectrum? Do you anticipate this creating any additional obstacles for their development?

BODMAN: It all depends on, on the children. Some children don't like anything having to do with change, so suddenly seeing people with mask could be kind of concerning to those children. But there are many children on the autism spectrum who don't look at faces period. In fact, we try to get them to look at our faces. This is so individual on, on what children need. And I also think that when it comes to, like, wearing masks that we're not talking 24/7 mask wearing. We're talking a few hours a day, maybe at most if a child is in preschool. You know that three to five hours a day is not likely to overcome eons of evolution in terms of our facial expressions and our ability to read others.

GILGER: I want to also ask you about social distancing and sort of the way it might be changing the way that we communicate using space, right?


GILGER: Like, a lot can be said about the way people position themselves, how close you get to somebody else, the way you express something through the use of space — attraction, comfort, intimidation, et cetera. How does social distancing change the way children might learn to interpret those cues?

BODMAN: I think that's really interesting question, Lauren. And I think that might be something we really need to be looking at academically, is what is happening related to social distancing and what are children learning? When we look at how far we're supposed to be away from each other when we talk, right, that's so culturally embedded in us. We don't even realize it. You don't realize it until you go to another culture. Where, like where my husband's from, when you see somebody, you immediately hug them. You hug them, you kiss them on both cheeks and you sit close to them. But there are other cultures where we're very distant, and we learn about our culture and we learn about, you know, the appropriate distance to be from people when we communicate as we interact with them through modeling. And right now, I can tell you that when I'm walking down the street and I've got one of my grandkids with me and they see people like taking a wide arc around us, they're learning something there. And I'm not sure how that's going to translate across time. We do know that kids are adaptable, that kids are resilient. And, you know, as parents, there are things that we can do.

GILGER: Let's talk about that. So how can parents, instructors, maybe in schools or preschools sort of try to bridge that developmental gap and do it safely? How do you raise kids to be comfortable in this kind of world where everyone is sort of obscured for at least some time here, but also sort of appreciate the safety that they provide and not too much of either of those things?

BODMAN: Yeah, what parents can do is they can get children to be comfortable and to start learning to recognize expressions, even with a mask on. So you could play what I call, 'Am I mad, sad, happy or scared?' game. So you have a mask on and you make a mad face with the mask on and you say, "Am I mad, happy or sad?" And if the child says, "You're mad," you lift up the mask [and say,] "You're right, I'm mad, now it's your turn." This can help children to learn that facial expressions are more than just a mouth. There are other clues. There are eyes that can give you information.

GILGER: All right. That is Dr. Denise Bodman, principal lecturer at ASU's T. Denny Sanford School of Social and Family Dynamics. She has taught infant and toddler development for 20 years. Thank you so much, Dr. Bodman, for joining us. I really appreciate your perspective on this.

BODMAN: Thank you so much.


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