When you go out these days, if you must go out in this time of coronavirus, you see more and more masks — homemade fabric masks, surgical masks of all varieties, and the occasional high-tech mask that seems to have wandered out of a scuba sequence or a space movie.

But for some children, even the humblest of masks can be scary — scary in themselves, and scary as reminders of the threat of infection, and the generally frightening times through which we are living. There are children who find Halloween frightening, children who hate clowns, children who react badly to anyone without a standard human face. Roberto Olivardia, a lecturer in psychology at Harvard Medical School, said that as many as 1 percent of children may suffer from “maskaphobia,” a fear that persists for longer than six months, usually thought of in relation to costumes and superheroes.

But for many children, seeing their parents wearing masks as they come and go, or going outside, even with full social distancing, in a world where most people are wearing masks, can be disconcerting, frightening or just one more source of sadness.

One reason children may find masks disconcerting is that the ability to recognize — and read — faces is much weaker in young children than it will be by adolescence. A while ago, when I wrote about this ability, I spoke with Kang Lee, a professor of applied psychology and human development at the University of Toronto, who studies the development of facial recognition skills in children.

I reached out to him again to think about how the face masks we are now seeing everywhere might appear to preschoolers.

As adults, Dr. Lee said, we look at faces as a whole: “If you wear a mask, I can still recognize you, even though half of your face is covered, I can still recognize the structure of your face.”

Starting at around age 6, children begin to develop these skills, but, he said, it is not until they are about 14 that they reach adult skill levels in recognizing faces.

He explained that children younger than 6 tend to pay attention to individual features, rather than recognizing the person as a whole. “For example, they pay attention to the size of the nose, or the shape of the eye.” Studies in which children were asked to look at pictures in which faces were partially blocked off show that they may have trouble recognizing even familiar faces when some of those features were not fully visible. So friends and neighbors — seen from a distance — who are wearing masks may look more unfamiliar to children than they do to adults.

For example, in one study, children were given a set of pictures of their teacher, mixed up with pictures of another person, and asked to sort them out so that only pictures of the teacher were together. By the age of 6, they could do it, but 4- and 5-year-olds could not do it so reliably.

Click here for full article: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/13/well/family/coronavirus-children-masks-fear.html