The Masks Are Off! (But The Anxiety is On...)

After two years of wearing masks to school, having much of their faces hidden, will social anxieties and body image issues suddenly come to the fore? We spoke to Kids First Medical Center Psychologist, Praseetha Yezhuvath, and Adolescent Counselor, Janet Mak, to gain insight into potential difficulties that young people may face this week.
This article is part of an editorial series on Covid-19
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This article is part of an editorial series on Covid-19

As parents, teachers and students rejoice at the ending of the requirement to wear masks in schools, some teens and pre-teens may be feeling a little differently. After two years of wearing masks to school, having much of their faces hidden, social anxieties and body image issues can come to the fore.

For 14-year-old Sarah, a student in a Dubai secondary school, the news of the removal of the mask mandate came with mixed feelings. Sarah’s mother explained:

“Sarah has always been a reserved girl, but she does have friends and gets on fine at school. She complained about wearing a mask like everyone else did, and seemed pleased when the news came on Monday that she wouldn’t need to wear a mask to school now.” 

Sarah’s mother noted a change after she had seen her friends the following day:

“She asked me if I thought it would be OK if she kept wearing her mask for a while. I was surprised and asked her why. She told me she wasn’t worried about the virus, but that she “felt weird not having it”. I really hadn’t expected this response from her at all.”

Similarly, Elena, a Dubai-based mother of a twelve-year-old boy and a nine-year-old girl, shared her children’s responses:

“My son’s reaction was very unexpected. He feels comfortable hiding behind the mask and was not happy to hear they will become optional. I am hoping this is just a phase and he will forget all about it after a while without it. By contrast, my daughter, who is younger, was thrilled and full of joy when I gave her the news.” 

Adolescent Counsellor, Janet Mak, explained that this reaction is understandable for teens and pre-teens, who are used to wearing masks at school. “Adolescence is a period of a lot of physical changes and teens are more conscious of an “imaginary audience” and its response to their physical changes.” She explained. “While one’s friends may have seen your face since the pandemic started, it may be different to a teen who feels self-conscious in front of the entire school, the entire teacher and student body.”

Psychologist, Praseetha Yezhuvath, added: 

“For two long years, children and teens have become used to hiding their emotions behind the mask or shielding themselves from any perceived judgement from others. At the adolescent or pre-adolescent stage of development, a change in the way you are perceived by others can be life changing.”

Adolescent Counsellor, Janet Mak, highlighted that social media may well play a part in potentially exacerbating this anxiety. Several mask-related online trends have appeared during the pandemic, including 'the mask hoax', in which it is revealed (or comically faux-revealed) when individuals hide perceived 'facial flaws' behind a mask, as well as a person's physical appearance being rated with or without a mask, showing the comparison. 

Ms Mak also highlighted some research conducted since the pandemic concerning the impact of wearing masks on initial impressions, body attractiveness and emotional connection:

"Studies have shown that when we see someone wearing a mask, we may naturally feel a sense of comfort and safety. Additionally, our brains may subconsciously 'fill in the blanks' with 'normal features', thereby boosting bodily attractiveness of those wearing a mask.
A face mask also deters our attention from one’s pure physical appearance to other aspects of one’s personality, for example, one's kindness, intelligence, and sense of humour, tone and non-verbal cues."

While families around the UAE celebrate the removal of the mask mandate, what should parents who are concerned that their teen may be feeling less positive? Psychologist, Praseetha Yezhuvath, told us she would urge parents to check in with their children or teens often on how they are doing, to validate their feelings and provide them any information which will help them feel reassured. 

She added:

"They should also be encouraged to talk to their friends or peers if they feel safe to do so. Teenagers often feel these same fears but in silence and rarely share them with their friends, but sometimes talking about it with friends might help them feel a little less alone in that feeling."

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