Psychology Undergraduate Research Symposium 2021

The COVID-19 Pandemic, Mask-Wearing, and Emotion Recognition in Children

Emotion recognition is fundamental to effective human social interaction, the experience of empathy, and engagement in prosocial behavior. Facial expressions appear to be influential as diagnostic cues in the process of emotion recognition, and research suggests that we rely on different facial regions when evaluating differing emotional content. The COVID-19 pandemic has created new and important incentives for researching emotion recognition. Widespread mask-wearing, to reduce the airborne transmission of the coronavirus, means that the majority of faces we encounter on a daily basis are partially occluded. Prior research on partially occluded faces, as well as preliminary research conducted during the COVID-19 pandemic, suggests that mask-wearing may have a detrimental effect on emotion recognition abilities. However, little is known about the combined effects of mask-wearing and social isolation on children’s emotion recognition abilities. 

The current study addressed this gap in the literature, leveraging a sample of 100 children aged 7-10-years-old (Mage=9, 52.5% female) with a longitudinal subsample of 36 children with pre-pandemic data available. Data were collected during 30-minute online Zoom “visits,” consisting of the completion of the Dynamic Affect Recognition Task with child and adult stimuli and masked and unmasked versions of each. We found that masking negatively affects emotion recognition accuracy, especially for happy, sad, and fearful faces. Leveraging our longitudinal subsample, we found that time negatively affected emotion recognition accuracy and that emotion recognition for sad faces was specifically impaired post-pandemic. Given that deficits in emotion recognition are linked to problematic psychological and social outcomes, our findings highlight the importance of future intervention-focused research to minimize these observed deficits.

College of Arts & Sciences 2022
College of Arts & Sciences 2022


April 30 | 11:15 AM : by

Maia- this is a truly remarkable set of findings! The implications are tragic- and I imagine that they are even more consequential for even younger children.  What are your thoughts on why the effect was stronger for the sad emotion?  Perhaps kids attending in-person school with everyone masked might have a bigger effect than kids attending zoom school where no-one is masked?  I am so pleased you will be in the honors seminar next year! Liz Brannon 

April 30 | 2:53 PM : by

Hi Maia,

This is such important research, and your presentation of your poster was masterful.  It's interesting that anger was the most "spared" in terms of recognition (at least v neutral faces) - I wonder if that's because so much of anger is communicated in the eyebrows and creased brow, and less in the mouth.  On the other hand, "smizing" (smiling with your eyes) is hard to do and communicate, though many of us have been trying to perfect it over the last year.  

What do you think the developmental implications of this are?  Do you think people will get better at reading facial emotions on masked faces?  Or do we desperately need to be able to stop masking?  There are cultures in the world in which children see masked faces all the time (Muslim moms who wear hijab and face veils, Asians who have used surgical masks for years when out and about).  Is there any cross cultural evidence that those kids might be better at reading masked emotions?  Does practice help?  

I look forward to hearing your thoughts!


Dr. Hunt


May 05 | 2:55 PM : by

Hi Maia, I found your poster quite interesting.  Do you have any measures for the level of social isolation the children experienced?  I wonder how much of the deficit is due to masking versus general lack of social interaction.  A comment on data presentation- since there are only 2 time points, it is misleading to use a line graph.  A line implies that you have intermediate data points.  A bar graph would be more transparent.  Are there no deficits in adults?


Nice work!


Hi Maia,

You did a great job with your poster and research!  I was wondering if you had any thoughts on whether children in the pandemic would have poorer rates of emotional recognition compared to babies born before the pandemic since emotional recognition develops at such an early age?  Do you think this would be a long-term issue or something gradually resolved if/when there is no longer a need to keep masking?