Children find it more difficult to recognize people in face masks – Israeli study – The Times of Israel

Children find it more difficult than adults to recognize faces behind face masks, according to a new joint Israeli-Canadian study.

Led by Ben-Gurion University in Beersheba and York University in Toronto, the study found that children had trouble recognizing faces that were partially covered by masks, which could lead to social difficulties.

A previous study led by the researchers found that wearing a mask hindered facial recognition in adults. This latest study shows that the phenomenon is even worse in children.

In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic and the social distancing it has required, being unable to recognize faces “could potentially impact social interactions with peers and educators, as well as the ability to form important relationships,” Ben-Gurion University said in a statement Tuesday.

“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.

In order to compare the experience of children to that of adults, the study examined 72 children aged 6 to 14, and showed them faces with or without masks, both upright and inverted.

Illustrative photo of Israeli children in a classroom. (Yossi Zamir/Flash90)

Researchers used a children’s version of the Cambridge Face Memory Test, considered the best method for measuring face perception abilities in humans, to test the children’s ability to recognize faces with and without masks.

They found that children’s face-perception abilities were not only profoundly impaired when presented with masked faces, but that their level of impairment was greater than that experienced by adults — 20% impairment compared to about a 15% rate for adults.

Furthermore, the study found that children’s mental processes used for recognizing faces changed when attempting to recognize masked faces, becoming more analytical over time. Humans, the study noted, usually process the face as a whole rather than by its individual features. This has become impossible when most parts of the face are covered, requiring children to employ new mental strategies.

“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 said.

Travelers wearing masks due to the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic ride the Jerusalem Light Rail as it passes by the Mahane Yehuda market in Jerusalem on December 31, 2021. (MENAHEM KAHANA / AFP)

“If holistic processing is impaired and recognition is impaired, there is a possibility it could impair children’s ability to navigate through social interactions with their peers and teachers, and this could lead to issues forming important relationships,” he added. “Given the importance of faces to social interactions, this is something we need to pay attention to.”

Freud argued that there should be more research exploring the social and psychological ramifications of wearing masks on children’s educational performance, especially at a time when children around the world are starting to go back to school under restrictive mask mandates.

Last week, Israel’s health and education ministries agreed to end the school “traffic light” program, which determined whether schools could hold in-person lessons based on the vaccination rates in each class.

With infections hitting record levels, health and education officials determined that classroom vaccination rates should no longer be a deciding factor for in-person lessons, since a low vaccination rate could force an entire class to go remote.

The decision will effectively ease schools’ ability to hold in-person classes during the Omicron-driven infection wave.

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