Should young children be made to wear face masks?

In Singapore and many other countries around the world, it’s common for young children to wear masks against Covid-19 – but aside from the protection they provide against the virus, might they pose a risk to their longer-term development?

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Like many children his age, three-year-old Eshan Evans is energetic and boisterous. But as soon as he has to put on a face mask at school, something changes. “You can see he’s a different boy, much tamer and quieter,” says his mother Herne.

In Singapore, where Eshan and his family live, children aged six and above are legally required to wear masks. But many kindergartens and pre-schools also strongly encourage the practice for younger children. It means that for roughly eight hours every weekday, except while eating, drinking, or napping, Eshan wears a disposable three-ply mask. 

The moment he’s let out, however, he rips off his mask, shoving it into his pocket or thrusting into his grandmother’s hands. Once, on a particularly bad day in July, he threw his mask on the ground and ran out the school gates.

“He hates it,” says his mother, who doesn’t make her son wear a mask outside of school. “I have nothing against masks… but we don’t want to force it on him and know he’s uncomfortable.”

The decision of whether to mask young children is one that many parents and regulators around the world are facing as they try to prevent new waves of Covid-19, while also allowing children to develop, socialise and thrive emotionally. 

From a regulatory standpoint, as of early October, countries fall largely into three camps. Singapore and European countries such as France and Italy recommend masking up from the age of six. This is in line the World Health Organization’s guidelines, which recommend that children over six wear masks in certain circumstances, for example when there is widespread transmission in their area. Some only apply the rule to specific indoor settings, such as school.  

Other regulatory bodies, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States, recommend mask-wearing for those aged two and older. And then there are those countries that have dropped requirements for in-classroom face coverings – for instance, in the UK, neither children nor their teachers are advised to wear masks to school.

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