Unproven claims of masks harming speech development spread online
Social media posts claim that mask use impairs children's speech development. But experts say that while more research is needed on the topic, preliminary data does not support this conclusion.
"Dehumanizing a child with a mask is child abuse. Stunting, speech development, and giving masked speech therapy is cruelty with damage that will last a lifetime," says a February 11, 2022 tweet.
More examples of the claim appeared on Twitter here and here.
Republican Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene made a similar claim on Instagram in September 2021, saying: "Children need to see each other’s face and their parents and teachers faces in order to develop speech, expression, and emotional connections."
Two years into the Covid-19 pandemic, concerns surrounding the effect of masks on the linguistic, emotional and social development of children are taking center stage as calls to lift mask mandates in American schools have multiplied, and the scientific community is split on the best measures for children.
Scientific studies have shown that masks impact children's ability to recognize faces and emotions. As with adults, masks can also interfere with verbal communication. But experts are divided on the long-term effects on children's overall development.
On the issue of speech, the American Academy of Pediatrics' website says: "There is no known evidence that use of face masks interferes with speech and language development or social communication. Plus, children can still get plenty of face time at home with mask-free family members."
A US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention science brief also concluded that "the limited available data indicate no clear evidence that masking impairs emotional or language development in children."
University of Miami researchers found that masks do not have an effect on pre-schoolers' speech production.
Lynn Perry, a psychology professor who co-authored the study, which is currently under review for publication, told AFP: "Our research in pre-school classrooms both before and during the Covid-19 pandemic when children wear masks suggests no detrimental effects of mask wearing on children’s speech production, language development, or likelihood of interacting with their classmates and teachers."
Diane Paul of the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association said that while children do look at faces when learning to talk, it is not the only way.
Kids also learn by listening to voices and following gestures and eye movements of those around them. Paul said those with visual impairment learn to speak well, and noted that masks are not worn all the time, such as at home.
"At least at this time, there aren't studies that have directly assessed the long-term impact of speech and language development when young children interact with adults who wear masks, but there are studies that demonstrate that children can tune into these different communication cues and gestures when an adult's mouth isn't visible," she said.
"I really do not see any cause for alarm."
Dennis Kuo, chair of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Children With Disabilities, told AFP there is currently no research showing that masks can cause harm in pre-school-aged children.
Kuo said there are "good questions" about the overall impact of masks but at the same time "they're a really important part of controlling the pandemic," and cautioned against reading too much into "unverified anecdotes" online.
Makenzie Wesner, pediatric nurse practitioner and chair of the National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners’ Developmental Behavioral & Mental Health Special Interest Group, called for more "well-designed, peer-reviewed research" on the topic.
"Fortunately, we do know that blind children without visual access to speech sounds often have normal speech development, and children in cultures in which face covers are common place also tend to show typical speech patterns," she said, while adding that those who are deaf or hard of hearing rely more on visual cues.
David Lewkowicz of Yale University's language research center Haskins Laboratories wrote an article titled: "Masks Can Be Detrimental to Babies’ Speech and Language Development," which was published in Scientific American in February 2021.
The article has been cited by social media users as evidence of damage caused by face coverings, but Lewkowicz said his work is being misrepresented.
"The title of my Scientific American article is an unfortunate mischaracterization of the actual contents of the article. Please note that the title was foisted on me by the editor at Scientific American," he told AFP by email.
"Of course, as I anticipated, those with an anti-mask agenda have seized on the title without bothering to read the actual article... those who are against masking are clearly taking what I said in the article out of context and their claims are NOT supported by our findings nor those of others that I know."
He said that the impact of masking is a "complex issue" and echoed other scientists' observations that more data is needed on the subject, noting that "even if we find effects of masking on face recognition or speech and language, those are likely to be transitory."
He added that "children are used to seeing people wearing masks or face coverings for religious, cultural, or health reasons in many parts of the world and, despite this, their speech and language development does not appear to be adversely affected."
Spike in young speech patients
A Florida news outlet reported in November 2021 that speech-language pathologist Jaclyn Theek had experienced a massive uptick in children coming in for speech delays.
"We've seen a 364% patient increase in patient referrals of babies and toddlers from pediatricians and parents," Theek is quoted as saying in the article, which suggests that these children are "speech-delayed."
Like Lewkowicz's article, Theek's comments were used to support claims about masks being harmful: "REPORT: Mask Mandates Causing Over 350% Surge In Childhood Speech Delays," one January 2022 article said.
But Vanderbilt University hearing and speech science professors Melanie Schuele and Steve Camarata said the current increase of young patients may be a delayed result of pandemic-related closures.
Many parents "delayed seeking evaluations for their child due to Covid," and clinics are now receiving an "onslaught" of referrals, Schuele said.
Camarata agreed, pointing to studies confirming that speech and language therapy services were down during acute Covid-19 periods.
AFP Fact Check has debunked other inaccurate claims related to Covid-19 here.
February 22, 2022 This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Lynn Perry's name in paragraph 10.