Psychologist Explains Long-Term Effects of Masking, Social Distancing on Kids

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A great deal of psychological development occurs in the early years of a child’s life. So, what happens when that development is interrupted by a global pandemic? How do things such as social distancing and mask-wearing affect our children long term? 

“Part of the way that babies stimulate themselves when they are out in the world is by noticing faces,” clinical psychologist Chloe Carmichael says. 

In addition to developmental delays, Carmichael says masking and remote learning might have contributed to increased levels of anxiety in children. 

Carmichael, who is also the author of “Nervous Energy: Harness the Power of Your Anxiety,” joins “The Daily Signal Podcast” to discuss what we know about the long-term effects of COVID-19 protocols on children. She also offers parents some suggestions for how they can help their kids make up for lost development over the past two years. 

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Also on today’s show, we cover these stories:

  • The Senate passes a $40 billion aid package for Ukraine.
  • President Joe Biden welcomes the leaders of Finland and Sweden to the White House to discuss those countries possibly joining NATO.
  • The man accused of killing 10 people at a grocery store in Buffalo, New York, is indicted by a grand jury on a first-degree murder charge.

Listen to the podcast below or read the lightly edited transcript:

Virginia Allen: We are joined today by clinical psychologist Dr. Chloe Carmichael, who’s the author of “Nervous Energy: Harness the Power of Your Anxiety.” Dr. Chloe, thank you so much for being here today.

Dr. Chloe Carmichael: Virginia, thanks for having me. It’s really great to be with you, especially to talk about such an important topic.

Allen: It is such an important topic. Before we really dive into talking about the effect of masking and social distancing and isolation on kids during the COVID-19 pandemic, I was wondering if you could just take a minute and share a tiny bit of your background and your own qualifications.

Carmichael: Sure. I’m a clinical psychologist, which means I have a Ph.D. in clinical psychology. I have a practice in New York City. I employ other therapists. I’ve had my own practice for about 10 years and then a Ph.D. takes about six years of training, so I guess in total, I’ve been practicing about 15 years.

My book, as you mentioned, “Nervous Energy: Harness the Power of Your Anxiety,” was endorsed by Deepak Chopra, which I was super excited about. The point of “Nervous Energy: Harness the Power of Your Anxiety” is that, as a psychologist, I want people to understand that there’s actually a healthy function to anxiety because I know that with the pandemic, we’ve all had skyrocketing rates of anxiety, and sometimes people have a tendency to just assume that has to always be bad.

The good news is that mother nature gave us anxiety for a reason, which is to stimulate us to do preparation behaviors, or to reach out to others, or other healthy activities. That’s one of my focuses, is to help people learn how to really grow and stay strong and reach their full potential.

Allen: That’s so fascinating. There’s such an obvious need for that right now, so that’s wonderful. Now, because today’s conversation is largely talking about kids and the effect of the COVID-19 pandemic on our kids, I was wondering, for those of us who don’t have a background in psychology, if you could just take a minute and explain a little bit about how kids’ brains develop and kind of a quick lesson on childhood development.

Carmichael: Sure. Just to really give full credit to the true experts in that area, that would really be what you would call a developmental psychologist, would really be the person that would be a true expert in child development.

However, of course, as a clinical psychologist, I’m licensed to work with children and I have knowledge about children, but it would really be a developmental psychologist that would be the true expert on that subject.

However, some certain information that people would want to know about children, I think, especially pertains to the pandemic and the lockdowns, and the masks, and how that could be affecting children, or how it may have already affected children, is to understand that babies like to look at faces.

This has been a known fact. Whatever perspective you’re coming from, whether it be a religious perspective or an evolutionary perspective, it doesn’t matter.

The reasoning behind it might be different, again, depending on your perspective. But study after study shows that children, infants, their gaze—and psychologists measure this by looking at the infant’s eyeballs and where the child is focusing—they will look at the mouths and the faces of the adults around them.

They’re doing that because they’re getting wired. Their brain, their neurons are starting to wire for language as well as for connection.

What’s super interesting is that even in utero, when a baby is in utero, in the mom’s womb, if you shine a light at mom’s womb, the baby will actually track the light with their eyeballs. Here’s the really amazing part. If you shine three lights that are shaped like a face, meaning the two eyes and the mouth, the baby will track that better than if you have three lights in a random pattern.

Evolutionary psychologists speculate that this is, again, just back to that hard wiring that children have to look at faces because that’s where they’re getting social cognition information. It’s where they’re getting language information. It’s where they are even learning about trust. Children emotionally regulate by looking at a calm, happy face.

I don’t mean to overwhelm you with information, but there’s also something called mirror neurons where when we look at the face of another person, our mirror neurons will actually literally make that face.

If mom, or teacher, or whomever the child is looking at is giving a warm, encouraging smile, or even just a stable, steady, calm expression, the child’s mirror neurons are literally picking that up, and the child is grabbing and using that to emotionally regulate themselves.

Allen: Fascinating. Then with something like masking, where for the past two years most babies, toddlers, kids, when they’ve gone out outside of their home into public, they’ve largely seen adults with half their faces covered and with their mouths covered so they can’t read their lips or watch their lips move as they speak, how does that affect kids and babies?

Carmichael: There’s a million ways I can think of that it could potentially affect them. The thing is, of course, we don’t have a lot of studies on this because prior to COVID, you could never even get university approval to say, “Hey, I’m going to take a bunch of children and deprive them of human faces on a large scale for months or years at a time.”

My first thought is that most university research approval boards would probably say, “No, I’m sorry. That sounds cruel. We’re not going to do that study just to see if it affects kids.”

I can really only speculate here about how I think that would affect kids. However, I should also add that, although I’m only speculating, we do know Brown University recently did a study that showed a significant drop in the IQs of children that were going through the first two years of their life during the pandemic.

I think the Brown researchers speculated that that could in part be because of the lack of stimulation, because again, part of the way that babies stimulate themselves when they are out in the world is by noticing faces. It’s just what they are wired to do. As I said, even in utero, they will zero in if you show them anything that is shaped like a face.

They’re not only getting language acquisition skills, but they’re actually also developing self-esteem.

When you have your baby in the cart at the grocery store and everybody starts waving at your baby and saying, “Hi, cutie, let me see that smile,” that child is not only getting exposed to language and learning about smiles and how they pair with what psychologists call positive affect, the child is also experiencing their sense of identity and being noticed as a separate person from their mother because people are interacting with them as an individual.

There’s also a matter of self-esteem. Right? If the child supposed is starting to make a little frown and the adults around the child say, “Oh, perk up, butter cup. What’s the matter? Do you need a change, whatever?”, that baby is, again, not only getting exposed to the language and the social patterns and everything else, but on a self-esteem level, they’re internalizing that their community pays attention to them and that they matter. Right?

If you’re covering perhaps the child’s face or the faces of the adults around the child are masked so the child can’t really notice and register the responses or certainly understand the language—babies don’t understand that language, they’re really reading the face more than anything at that point.

Allen: Wow. That’s so interesting. It’s so fascinating, really, just to hear about how we’re wired, how we’re designed from such a young age to be so aware of faces.

Now, speaking of kids that are maybe a little bit older, school-age kids, who during the course of the pandemic were doing their schoolwork remotely from home for anywhere between six months to two years on a computer without extracurricular activities, those sorts of things, what do we know about how that affects a child’s mental health?

Carmichael: Right. I mean, that’s such an interesting question because even prior to the pandemic, I think it was just basically common knowledge amongst adults that you need to limit your child’s screen time. That increased screen time is associated with feelings of isolation and all those other types of things. Then there we are, literally ordering our children to go sit in front of a computer for hours on end.

That in itself, I think, is disruptive, but then also what the child is missing out on, again, is that social cognition and that self-esteem piece of, say, being in a classroom where all the children are sitting on the rug together listening to the teacher read the story, or older children, maybe the kids are at their desk and the teacher’s talking about how to write down the letter “D” on the chalkboard or whatever.

The children are able to also notice how their peers are responding to the teacher, so they are learning social cognition as well as focus skills and all of those types of things by being in that group.

Then, if something funny happens, again, I’m talking about young kids, 4 years old, 5 years old, suppose one of them lets out a little belch or something and the teacher does a thing where she goes, “Oh my goodness.” She puts her hand over her mouth and widens her eyes in a playful surprise and says, “David, time to say ‘excuse me.’”

Then all of the other children are laughing and the teacher is making light of a moment, but what’s also happening there is the children are experiencing the sense of social connectivity, and learning empathy, and how to behave, and how to be comfortable in a group, as well as how to weather minor embarrassments and funny, awkward moments together.

There’s just so much that happens through body language and other things that we just simply are deprived of when we’re in front of a computer screen.

Allen: Fascinating. Now, we mentioned anxiety earlier in our conversation and we’ve seen quite a bit of research come out about how anxiety levels have gone up among adults during the pandemic and over the course of the past couple of years. What do we know about anxiety in kids? Did we see an increased level of kids experiencing anxiety over the past two years?

Carmichael: Oh, yes, ma’am. My goodness. It’s absolutely very high. The U.S. surgeon general has recently released a report showing pretty shocking levels of increase in that area.

Actually, I wrote a blog with all of my thoughts about this stuff. It’s called maskharms.com. … There I actually have a link to that surgeon general’s report. It definitely does show that these rates are skyrocketing.

Now, obviously, it could be due to a lot of things. The children could be terrified of COVID or so many other reasons behind it. I’m not saying it’s all due to lockdowns and social distancing and masking and having to stay home from school, but I think it could be a big part of it potentially.

One other quick thing I just wanted to say, Virginia, about being in front of a computer screen versus being on a playground or being in the halls of your junior high school is that those more sophisticated social skills of reading facial expressions matter at that age, too.

If you can imagine, say, 12-year-old or 15-year-old children, they’re in those little groups at school, little cliques. Right? If you see a group of girls across the room, and they’re standing in a circle, and they’re talking, you can tell before you’re even in earshot, are their mouths moving quickly and animated with happy expressions or are they all with still quiet mouths and one person is speaking with their mouth a little bit closed or pursing their lips? You can tell just by looking what kind of conversation is being had, and then you’re unconsciously gauging the situation about whether and how to approach.

Those are sophisticated social skills that kids need to develop that, obviously, it’s just, when you put a mask over everybody’s face, I have real concerns about what could happen there.

Allen: Yeah, absolutely. Well, for those listening, I want to bring in some solutions because it can be easy to feel really discouraged. While things, obviously, have begun moving forward in a positive light, and the majority of all kids are back in school and masks are coming off, what has been done has been done for so many kids and parents want to make sure that there aren’t long-term negative effects on their children. What can we do?

Carmichael: Yes. To your point, Virginia, about the anxiety factor, and again, that anxiety is usually stimulating us to do something constructive, so you’re right there. It’s a perfect example, Virginia, that you’re saying, “Hey, this situation is, these concerns are making me a little anxious. What can we do about them?” Right? That’s the perfect way to go about it.

Just like I was saying, I do think that children could be experiencing some of this increase in anxiety and depression due to the isolation that they’ve experienced from these lockdowns. I would say that it could be helpful to make concerted, intentional efforts to get those kids together and to help them to get over some of the residual social anxiety that they may now have.

For example, a lot of children feel that they’ll just wear the mask, even though they no longer have to. Some of them are doing it because they’re just so used to it that showing their face, whether maybe they have, as children, teens do, maybe they’re missing a tooth. Maybe they have crooked teeth. Maybe they have a pimple. All those awkward things that teenagers normally just get past and grow through socially. Children are now just covering their face. Right?

Also, for example, some of them might be wearing the mask because they think it’s like, “Just to be nice, just in case I could hurt anyone by my germy self.” Right? They’re holding onto a mindset that maybe … was appropriate before we had three vaccines and plenty of treatments and everything else, and they’re just so afraid of hurting someone that they’re wearing it.

It can be helpful to, depending on the child, to actually, perhaps, consider not allowing them to wear it. In the same way that if your child told you that they feel comfortable staying in their room playing video games and eating Snickers all day, you might say, “Well, honey, you might feel comfortable doing that, but it’s not good for you. There’s areas that you need to grow and develop, and so I’m going to make that choice for you. You’re not going to stay in your room all day and do that.”

You might, again, depending on the child and the situation, you might say, “You know what? We’re definitely doing social time and we’re definitely doing it unmasked, and you’re definitely not bringing a device.”

I do think, as parents, we have to almost deprogram our kids from some of the effects that this pandemic and the lockdowns and everything else may have inadvertently put upon our children.

Allen: Yeah. That’s a real shift in thinking. That’s really helpful. Thank you.

I do think that some people are concerned that when we hit winter and flu season again, that we’ll see what we’ve seen over the past two years, and there’ll be an uptick in cases, and that lawmakers might threaten some form of lockdowns again or masking again in schools. How should parents respond to that?

Carmichael: Yeah, I think that’s a good question. I think that parents need to be strong and need to be assertive. That’s been one of the silver linings of all this, is that many parents have had a window into what their children are being exposed to at school in the first place. They’ve also discovered that they need to be their children’s advocates or else the school board will just be making all those decisions for them.

I do think it’s important for parents to stand up and to advocate, and to really help hold accountable the people who are making these choices, and to really help them to understand it’s not always just to be safe or out of an abundance of caution.

We’re going to bring back the masks to say, “Wait a minute. If we have an abundance of caution, what about our caution for our children’s mental and social development? Can we have an abundance of caution about that as well, and to educate themselves?”

There’s many ways and places a person could do it. As I mentioned, I put my own blog at maskharms.com, if people want to arm themselves with information.

I’ll share with you also, Virginia, that—for unfortunate reasons that I don’t understand—many people in my own profession, psychology, really skew toward the masking and lockdown side, even though they know about these issues.

For example, when I wrote my blog, I sent it to several clinical psychology colleagues of mine and I asked them for feedback on it. I got the strangest response. They came back and they said, “Chloe, there is nothing in your blog that we disagree with on a factual level, but we think you should take it down because there are moms with guns going to school board meetings, and we’re afraid that your blog could spur them on.”

Then they were like, “We’ve had issues with insurrections in this country.”

I mean, it felt to me like, to be honest, like crazy talk. I was like, “What are you talking about?” There’s nothing in my blog that advocates for any form of violence or anything, obviously, at all.

These are perfectly normally sane, rational people. And people who are normally, again, psychologists recognize the value of discussion, recognize the value of debate, and recognize that when you try to silence people, that’s when they’re more likely to act out in unhealthy ways. Yet they were trying to tell me that I shouldn’t share with people about the psychology reasons why these types of lockdowns and things could be detrimental to children.

I would encourage, to your point, for parents to try to gain the information so that they’re not just showing up at the school board meeting and saying, “Don’t bring that mask because I don’t like it.”

I would love if they could be stronger advocates and talk about social and emotional development, or the increase in anxiety and depression, and all of these other good reasons why, out of an abundance of caution, we may want to avoid masking, depending on the situation.

Allen: Yeah, absolutely. It’s something that shouldn’t be a political debate. It’s in the best interest of our kids.

Carmichael: Very good point.

Allen: Yeah. Your point to making sure that we’re armed with the truth, that we’re armed with the facts and the information, Dr. Chloe, to that, tell us again how we can be following your work, how we can find your book, and be tracking with so much of this information that you’re putting out?

Carmichael: Yeah. Thanks, Virginia. There’s two simple URLs for people that are interested in more. One I’ve mentioned is maskharms.com. Not “masks harm,” but just maskharms.com, about the potential harms of masks at maskharms.com.

Then the other one about my book about how to use anxiety constructively, the way mother nature intended it. You can go to nervousenergybook.com, that’s nervousenergybook.com.

Also, both of those websites will have links to all my social handles. I love to connect on social media, too.

Allen: Great. Yeah. I can attest to the fact that you’re very active on Twitter. So again, Dr. Chloe, thank you so much. Dr. Chloe Carmichael, clinical psychologist and the author of “Nervous Energy: Harness the Power of Your Anxiety.” Dr. Chloe, thank you so much for joining us today. We look forward to having you back.

Carmichael: Thanks, Virginia. Have a great day.

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