Analyzing the effects of mask-wearing and social distancing on brain development in children

Throughout Homo sapiens’ rich history, our species has evolved to become deeply social animals. For instance, the first hunter-gatherers lived in bands, allowing their members to depend on each other for food and resources. Similarly, our most basic unit of community—the family—reflects our ability to develop deep relationships that often last us a lifetime. The unique social aspect of the human species has become so intrinsic to us that it’s even embedded in our biology; for example, during a child’s developmental years, their brains process social cues (e.g. facial expressions, reactions, and speech) to create complex neural circuits governing how they interact with others for the rest of their lives. 

However, over the past few months, COVID-19 has greatly limited our ability to have social interactions. As experts believe this pandemic will last several years, mask-wearing will become a common ritual in our day-to-day lives, making most of the faces we see partially hidden. In addition, our in-person interactions will drastically decrease as we move to technology platforms. Could this affect the way our children interact with and treat each other?

Facial cues are some of the most important aspects of nonverbal communication—in a sense, whether we’re smiling or frowning when we say something matters almost as much as the words we say, as others can understand entire realms of meaning from our expressions alone. However, when we wear a face covering, others may lose meaning by not picking up on facial signals hidden beneath this cover. By now, most of us have trained ourselves to pick up other aspects of nonverbal communication—tone, pitch, posture, and body language—to make up for this lost sense. 

The prefrontal cortex is the region of the brain responsible for understanding and interpreting nonverbal cues, allowing for our complex emotional responses. Source: Unsplash.

However, many children, whose brains are still learning to understand nonverbal cues, may feel disconcerted by this lack of information. If the pandemic lasts for several years, as many experts forecast, children’s brains may be forced to adapt to pick up other forms of nonverbal communication, like hand gestures and body posture. Similarly, we may also begin to gradually modify our expressions by developing muscular responses that are more visible to others. 

In addition, long-term isolation could add another dimension to the effects of COVID-19 on children’s brains. Firstly, social isolation has the potential to result in mental health problems; over the past 3 months, we’ve seen increased anxiety, depression, and suicide rates throughout the country. In a previous post*, I explored the impact of social isolation from a survey, and it was clear that the absence of interaction led to negative psychological impacts in teens (although this survey focused on teenagers, children likely feel the same way). Secondly, the lack of opportunities for children to interact with others could make it harder for their brains to understand the nuanced emotions of others around them. Hopefully, when they return to school, classrooms will make efforts to mitigate these impacts and give students the opportunity to participate in group settings in safe ways.

Finally, the movement to virtualization has affected nearly everyone, and parents increasingly need technology to work. Following a similar trend, device usage has also increased in teens and children, who find themselves spending more time on social media and video games. While staying connected with others (in spite of a raging pandemic) may be a boon of our technological era, addiction to such platforms can be truly detrimental to mental and physical well-being, resulting in the degradation of real-world relationships and poor sleeping habits. In the worst cases, overuse of technology can lead to depression.

Overuse of technology can lead to unhealthy habits, degrading one’s mental health. Source: Unsplash.

Of course, these risks don’t mean that we should stop wearing masks or refuse social distancing; studies have shown that masks can reduce the risk of transmission by 80%, and social distancing has saved millions of lives globally. Instead, while maintaining precautions, we should help each other get the social interaction we need to remain fulfilled, such as regular family dinners, virtual get-togethers, and safe meetups with friends. Furthermore, if we place limits on screen time and encourage healthy habits such as exercise, we can mitigate the effects of screen overuse. Finally, by keeping an open conversation about mental health, we can reduce stigmas surrounding depression and encourage those affected to seek help. The road ahead lies riddled with difficulties as we face challenging times, but our concerted efforts can build a better tomorrow.

Featured image credit Unsplash.


Further Reading

Figueroa, Caroline, and Adrian Aguilera. “The Need For A Mental Health Technology Revolution In The COVID-19 Pandemic.” Frontiers, 3 June 2020, https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyt.2020.00523/full.

Soto-Icaza, Patricia, et al. “Development of Social Skills in Children: Neural and Behavioral Evidence for the Elaboration of Cognitive Models.” Front. Neurosci., vol. 9. Frontiers Media SA, doi:10.3389/fnins.2015.00333. Accessed 27 July 2020.

“Depression On The Rise During COVID-19.” Massachusetts General Hospital, 25 June 2020, https://www.massgeneral.org/news/coronavirus/depression-on-rise-during-covid-19.


*SurveyAnyplace.com is an amazing survey tool that allows you to create beautiful surveys in an innovative format. I had a great experience using their tools to study mental health in teenagers from COVID-19!

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