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.