Masking Facial Expression in Children

We humans are social creatures that communicate through complex languages and facial gestures.  Our personalities are ingrained in these unique expressions, which impart visual messages that words alone cannot convey.  Facial expressions provoke a variety of cognitive processes, including emotional gesticulations that elicit rapid responses and ostensive ones that signal a willingness to communicate.

A hidden face deprives us of one of the most basic aspects of humanity and the ability to constructively interact in social settings.  Face masking children constitutes a sacrifice on a scale that can only be made in response to a danger of proportionate magnitude.     

The seventh cranial nerve, the nerve of facial expression, supplies innervation to thirty muscles on each side of the face.  As the representation of the homunculus demonstrates, the brain devotes an outsized role to them. These mimetic muscles are the only ones in our bodies that are connected to the dermis and are intimately involved in nonverbal communication.   

Muscles of the face and neck

From Gray’s Anatomy Plate 378 (public domain)

In the evolutionary process, where successful adaptations prevail, what is a selective advantage of devoting a disproportionate number of the brain’s motor neurons to the intricate facial musculature, when far fewer would suffice? 

Children do not readily develop SARS-CoV-2, spread it to other children or adults, transmit it to the home setting, or suffer severe illness or death.  The statistical occurrence of the latter is near zero.  A 2021 report of nearly two million children in Sweden, where there are no lockdowns or mask mandates, noted no Covid deaths in the one-to-sixteen-year-old age group. A more recent German study noted no deaths in the five-to-eighteen-year-old cohort and that severe illness overwhelmingly affected children with co-morbidities.

The Swedish Institute of Public Health noted no difference in the number of infections in teachers and children in mandate-free Sweden in comparison to teachers and children in Finland, where schools are closed and masks mandatory.  In January the Brownstone Institute analyzed data from states with and without mask mandates for school children and found no significant difference in infection and hospitalization rates. Currently, thirteen states are heedless of the evidence.  Mask mandates will expire in six of these states by March 31, leaving only a few, including California, that have not announced an official date to end the mandate.

Given the multitude of studies showing children are at low risk from SARS-CoV-2 and masks are ineffectual in the school setting, what is justification for authorities to force children to wear masks?  An article from Psychology Today, "The Impact of Masks on Social and Emotional Development" serves as a good example.  The efficacy of masks and the purported dangers of Covid are accepted without reservation, including the American Academy of Pediatrics recommendation to mask children as young as two years of age. 

The author contends that infants who are able to see the mouth have larger vocabularies as toddlers, but masking does not preclude language development. Emotional development is negatively impacted when only the eyes are visible.  Children less accurately interpret emotional expression, fail to recognize positive emotions, and experience a diminished perception of social referencing and social mimicry, which are important in the development of social behavior and empathy respectively.  Several workaround solutions are presented to compensate for arrested language and emotional development, but the reader is cautioned that children should not forgo wearing masks. 

An article generated by Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, "How Masks Could Affect Speech and Language Development in Children," downplays the role of facial expression, noting that face masks disrupt holistic processing and face perception in school-age children, but the ability to perform these fundamental skills is reduced only by 20%.  Parents are instructed to dress their children in personalized clothing to compensate for lack of identity.  The author admits that masks pose a challenge for developing interpersonal skills, expressing and reading emotions, and speech development, but emphasizes the resiliency of children.  Once again, the obvious solution to reverse the mask mandate is not considered.

A recent NIH article, "How Does Wearing a Mask Affect Children?" states, "While masks can protect against Covid 19 infections, it is unclear how mask-wearing behavior and mask mandates influence children's cognitive and social development."  The agency categorically and erroneously affirms the efficacy of children wearing masks but then admits that detrimental behavioral effects are unknown.  This claim, too, is suspect since earlier this month the CDC lowered childhood speech standards to knowing fifty words at thirty rather than twenty-four months. The NIH promises the issue will be studied, but as long as mask mandates persist, the damage continues. 

The fortitude of children is not without limits.  Aaron Hertzberg points out, children are resilient when internalizing emotional distress and suppressing natural instincts, but they are not resilient in the ability to rid themselves of significant emotional trauma and abuse.  What will be the children's response when the final mask mandate is rescinded?  This past week a teacher announced to her students that masks would no longer be required in the classroom.  The event was captured on video, and the children's facial expressions and spontaneous outbursts of joy and relief provided a thrilling and heartfelt reminder that we need to do a better job protecting the most precious and vulnerable among us. 

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