“Are they going to remove the mask in the institutes? Oh my God, now I’m embarrassed.” This tweet from Adriana, when they began to talk that they were going to remove the obligation to wear the face mask in institutes, it adds 52,000 ‘likes’. Almost 52,000 people who share this thought -50 times more than the followers it has, it is not that it has a legion of followers who celebrate everything-, which has revealed a problem that few saw coming: after two years of continuous use of the masks, now there are many adolescents and pre-adolescents who do not want to take them off and who wait with apprehension for the day that they will no longer be compulsory in class.
The year that broke the mental health of children and adolescents
“Many adolescents have become so accustomed to the mask that it is as if we take it off we feel naked, either because as a result of using it we have pimples and things like that, or there are those who are self-conscious about their nose and prefer to wear it”, Adrian explains. A few years younger is María (she is 12), but she makes similar arguments. “We have worn it for a long time and we have gotten used to wearing it, it is already a part of me and when you take it off you feel strange”, and she explains that she spends it with strangers, but also with her closest friends. The phenomenon is difficult to quantify, but it is very real and it is quite widespread. It is told by those affected themselves, teachers see it in schools, psychologists confirm it and families suffer.
It happened, to his surprise, to José Antonio Lucero, tutor of a 2nd year of ESO in Rota, Cádiz. “I began to hear it among some of the students when with the last update of the regulations it began to be possible not to use it in the patios, many did not want to take it off out of shame,” he says. “The mask is not only an element that covers imperfections that can be objectionable, it also serves as a barrier of emotions. Adolescents are already people who, in their conception of growth and self-esteem, often try to hide what they feel and have used the mask for that too, ”he adds. The matter, at least in his case, has reached a sufficient dimension to address it in the tutorials.
“There is never a single factor when these things happen,” explains Pedro Javier Rodríguez, a pediatrician at the Psychiatry service of the Hospital Nuestra Señora de Candelaria, in Tenerife. “There is probably a cultural factor, there are families more fearful than others –I have one that has not left the house in two years of the pandemic–, and another factor of introversion and shyness; it’s usually a sum of everything,” he adds.
The psychiatrist abounds, without dramatizing, in Lucero’s idea that this situation could be a problem. “It is worrying for neurodevelopment,” he exposes. “Adolescents learn to relate through the emotional expression of other people, especially other adolescents. But if you don’t see the response to a certain attitude, how do you learn if your behavior is positive or negative? Facial expression is very important for adolescents, and all this has been lost in the last two years.
The situation is strange for everyone, explains Cristina Alquézar, a teacher at a Zaragoza institute. “Honestly, I have some qualms [quitármela] Even me, when I do it in the patio, everyone watches you carefully, they have been with me for months and they don’t know what I am like; it’s very rare,” she says.
Because, as Alquézar points out and Lucero observes, in the educational world there is the particularity that some students and teachers do not meet face to face in person. Lucero is a tutor of a 2nd year of ESO (13 years old), which means that the students in his class entered the institute already in a pandemic, two years with the masks on. “Usually we don’t know each other’s faces, at least not me as a teacher. I suppose that they will have seen it when they are eating at recess or in the park in the afternoon, but not all of them, of course”. And 24 months later comes the shock.
“The habit is acquired quickly”
The child psychologist Bárbara Zapico has observed this phenomenon in somewhat younger children, between 8 and 10 years old. “It usually coincides with people who are more introverted, with more insecurity, who use the mask like glasses, as a protection,” she says. “And it almost always coincides with children who had previous anxiety or phobias. Premorbid people, who already had the concern and transfer it. We have been with this for two years and the habit is acquired quickly if it is continuous, ”she explains.
The issue worries many families, who see how their children are wary of going out or doing certain activities. “My daughter says that she has been told many times that she is very pretty with the mask and that she will never take it off,” says Sara. She assumes that she will get over it because she is 10 years old, but she is restless. Like Juan, who explains that his son has had orthodontics during the pandemic, many people at school don’t know and now he doesn’t want them to find out. Parents agree that their children do not have a problem of shame with their close friends, but with what they would consider acquaintances, or even strangers.
The phenomenon, in the absence of statistics to corroborate it, seems to be more a question of them than of them. Or, as Lucero explains, “maybe it’s just that they treat it more naturally, but boys also have that adolescent fear of pimples.” I would fit this circumstance with the fact, this one was studied at the beginning of the pandemicthat men tend to be less likely to use the mask if it is not mandatory because it is not “cool” (it is not coolin the study), is shameful and a sign of weakness and stigma, according to researchers at Middlesex University in London, in the United Kingdom, and the Research Institute of Mathematical Sciences in Berkeley, California.
Psychologists recommend approaching the situation progressively. “I would respect his decision, the more you try to force him, the more he will do it,” says Zapico. “There is something called successive approximations, going little by little. For example, one day to the corner without a mask, another day to the bakery, ”he proposes. “Or a few hours with and others without, masks the more transparent the better so that they get used to seeing their faces in the mirror or choosing certain places where they do not put them on,” adds Rodríguez.
Because the step must be taken. “Just as we have progressively adapted to the mask, we will have to adapt to not wearing it. But also adults, eh?” Zapico recalls. Adriana, the teenager from Seville who brought together 52,000 people under the idea of the shame of taking them off, is also aware that the step must be taken. “We will have to get used to it and know how to control the faces we make under the mask knowing that no one sees us,” she says sarcastically.