Studie naar gezichtsmasker en gelaatsuitdrukking © Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia
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An Italian study has shown for the first time that children aged 3 to 5 have problems recognizing the emotions of people who are wearing (surgical) face masks. The wearing of face masks -part of the preventive measures linked to the ongoing Covid-19 health crisis -may affect children’s ability to interact socially. 

Preschool age group

The study was led by Monica Gori of the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia (IIT). This is the first time that a preschool age group has been the subject of a scientific study concerning this material. The study should help identify measures that can be taken to reduce the impact of the use of surgical masks around children. In the event of a future pandemic, for instance.

Although the wearing of face masks for children from 3 to 5 years of age is not mandatory in most countries, children are exposed to the use of such preventive measures regardless.

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© Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia

The study featured a quiz made up of pictures of people with and without face masks. The pictures were shown on a computer, tablet or smartphone to 119 subjects. These included 31 children between the ages of three and five. The youngest subjects were asked, with the help of their parents, to try to recognize facial expressions conveying different emotions, such as joy, sadness, fear and anger, with and without a face mask.


In response to the results, the IIT researchers recommend that the use of transparent face masks should be considered for all people who, because of their profession, come into contact with children in the age group of 3 to 5 years. The authors also recommend that specific training exercises be formulated to allow children to learn to discern emotions try observing just the eyes.

Follow-up study

The experiment was conducted at the beginning of the 2020 pandemic. “At that time, face masks were still a new experience for everyone,” says Monica Gori. “The brains of children are very flexible. We are currently conducting tests to determine whether or not children’s understanding of emotions has improved.”

Monica Gori leads the Department for Visually Impaired Children, part of the Center for Human Technologies within the IIT.

The research article was published in Frontiers in Psychology.

Read more about the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia, the Italian version of MIT.