For months now, rumors have been slithering around that face masks stunt children’s learning and speech development. These claims don’t bear out, but the public has embraced them as an excuse to drop masks.
Along with virtual learning, they’ve become a favorite distraction from problems that have plagued public education for decades.
It’s another great example of how western societies, especially Americans, tend to use children’s health and safety as a pretense for their own agendas. I know that sounds harsh, but it’s true. The illusion of children’s well-being has played a pivotal role in witch hunts and moral panics going all the way back to our puritanical days. So far, this era feels no different. Adults got tired of wearing masks, so they used child welfare to justify ditching them.
In reality, there’s no scientific evidence that masking hurts most children. There’s challenges when it comes to students with different learning abilities, but there’s ways to manage those challenges without abandoning mask policies altogether. Abandoning masks hasn’t helped kids.
Masks protect kids.
It doesn’t slow down their learning.
It poses challenges in some situations.
The fact-checking organization AFP did a comprehensive review of the claim that masking hurts children’s speech development.
They found it overwhelmingly false.
The American Academy of Pediatrics says, "There is no known evidence that use of face masks interferes with speech and language development or social communication. Plus, children can still get plenty of face time at home with mask-free family members."
The Centers for Disease Control says that masks don’t have a significant impact on speech development. They further clarify that for autistic and hearing-impaired students, “interventions including positive reinforcement and coaching caregivers to teach mask wearing have improved participants’ ability to wear a face mask. These findings suggest that even children who may have difficulty wearing a mask can do so effectively through targeted interventions.”
The chair of the National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners says, "we do know that blind children without visual access to speech sounds often have normal speech development, and children in cultures in which face covers are commonplace also tend to show typical speech patterns.”
One bad title can do lots of damage.
In early 2021, there was a Scientific American article that ran with the headline, “Masks Can Be Detrimental to Babies’ Speech and Language Development.” The author of that article later slammed the publication’s editor for forcing a misleading title on him and misrepresenting his research. Specifically, he said that “children are used to seeing people wearing masks or face coverings for religious, cultural, or health reasons in many parts of the world and, despite this, their speech and language development does not appear to be adversely affected.”
Other articles that point to “explosions” of speech disorders themselves don’t use any actual evidence, and they misrepresent key information. Anyone who actually reads these articles can see the problems.
Masks don’t hurt kids.
A more thoughtful piece by on NPR says “a small but growing body of research is offering hints that masks do not have a significant impact on speech or social skills.” Research on blind children has found that they generally don’t experience delays in speech development. Our brains are good at finding workarounds. Other studies are starting to show that masks don't seriously affect children as young as 3 and 4. Children’s brains use a variety of visual cues to interpret speech. We rely on body language, eye movement, eyebrows, and tone of voice. Not seeing the bottom half of someone’s face doesn’t pose a major obstacle.
Masks pose challenges for students with different learning needs, but there’s workarounds. Abandoning masks altogether doesn’t help these kids. It just exposes them to more illnesses.
Kids learn facial cues from their families.
An article in The Washington Post interviews several pediatric experts who agree that fears of damaging children’s speech development are overblown. More studies are showing that children between 1 and 3 have incredibly flexible brains. They know how to understand adults even if they’re covering the bottom half of their face. If you’re worried about children being masked at daycare or preschool, “getting face-to-face, unmasked interaction with their family members before and after will probably offset being around masked adults all day.” The experts in the article stress the importance of spending time with your kids at home. That includes playing with them, and reading to them.
Some children might experience temporary delays, but it’s a small price to pay for protecting them from a dangerous virus.
Transparent masks don’t help.
Linguists and cognitive scientists at the University of Cambridge published a major study on face masks in school settings in Frontiers in Psychology. They found that face masking has a slight impact on communication and speech development (less than 10 percent). In their exact words, “visual face mask effects… were comparatively small, possibly so because visual cues from the upper half of the speaker’s face were present in all conditions.” In fact, they found that transparent face masks can make things worse. Condensation can distort lip movements. They’re also harder to talk through, so they distort sound worse than standard masks. The Cambridge authors summarized their findings in The Conversation.
They can actually hurt.
Psychologists published a study in Developmental Science showing that 2-year-olds could understand familiar words spoken by someone wearing an opaque mask, but not a transparent one. Transparent masks are more rigid. They reflect and refract light, and they collect condensation. On the other hand, regular or opaque masks “may provide a more stable visual signal.” You can’t exactly read lips, but you can still see facial movements. The mask’s opaqueness also prompts listeners to focus on other cues at the top half of the face.
Your lips aren’t your only visual cues.
An important 2020 study in PLoS ONE concludes that children can identify emotions in masked caregivers reasonably well. In fact, it’s about the same as someone wearing sunglasses. As one summary says, “children readily adapt to the varying ways in which emotion is conveyed in natural discourse and when specific cues are inaccessible, children harness other available cues to identify emotions. This conclusion is consistent with broader evidence that linguistic cues are not necessarily localized to one area of the face.” As the authors themselves write, “in combination with other contextual cues, masks are unlikely to dramatically impair children’s social interactions in their everyday lives.”
Even babies can adjust.
Researchers at the University of Massachusetts published a study in The Lancet on how masks impact the relationship between mothers and their babies. They found that “mask wearing itself did not disrupt their ongoing interaction. These findings challenge current hypotheses about the critical nature of the face and in particular mouth for communication and the organization of the brain for face perception.” Again, children even at very young ages can adjust, and they find emotional cues from areas well beyond someone’s lips.
Sound matters the most.
These studies on masks have shown that sound quality matters the most when communicating with children.
At least in my experience, wearing an N95 mask works best. They’re easier to breathe and talk through than most cloth masks. Cloth masks with filter pouches are thick and bulky, and they don’t provide as much protection.
Most people still don’t know this.
It’s a shame.
The takeaway: Masks don’t hurt kids.
There’s been a growing perception that somehow masks and virtual learning have done irreparable harm to our kids.
It’s a myth.
Anyone pushing this narrative has their own agenda, and it’s got nothing to do with protecting children. Politicians have colluded with a handful of “health experts” to essentially trick the public into hating masks.
They didn’t do it for us, or our children.
They did it for themselves.
Don’t listen to moral goldpanners.
It’s interesting that hardly anyone wants to talk about the real problems children and their parents are dealing with. Parents are working ridiculous hours to support their families. They don’t have access to childcare. Children are forced to start school at insanely early hours, largely to accommodate the corporate 9-5 work week. Consequently, nobody gets enough sleep. Kids spend all day filling out worksheets. They hardly ever go outside. Most public schools serve unhealthy, substandard food at lunch. They assign too much homework, and they give students too many standardized tests.
And we think masks are the problem?
Gimme a break.
No, public education has needed a major overhaul for decades. That’s no secret to most teachers. Fixing our schools would require us to reimagine other aspects of our culture. None of our leaders really want to do that, so they’re blaming everything on masks and virtual learning.
We’ve seen a lot of social and political maneuvering done in the name of children this last year. I call it moral goldpanning. You spend all day sifting through mud for one or two flakes of logic, and then you act like you’ve struck it rich. That’s exactly what’s going on with masks. This approach isn’t helping our kids. It’s being done at their expense, and it’s causing them real harm.
It has to stop.
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Think of the children! Except for guns, the environment, and plague.
People, usually assholes, just make this stuff up. Masks work very well, and they don't cause whatever the problem of the week is.