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Fact Check-Social media claims that masks delay children’s speech development are missing context

Claims on social media that mask mandates have triggered an over 350% surge in childhood speech development delays are missing context. The claims stem from the referrals witnessed in one Florida clinic. Experts consulted by Reuters said there is as yet no significant evidence to confirm masks cause speech development delays in children.

Examples of misleading messaging can be seen in Facebook posts (here) and (here).

Similar claims appear on Twitter (here) and (here).

Claims reference a report published by The National Pulse, (archived here: archive.is/BlGpL ) with a headline that reads, “REPORT: Mask Mandates Causing Over 350% Surge In Childhood Speech Delays.” This headline. shared online on its own, is missing context.

The article links to a report by West Palm Beach Florida News (WPBF) (here). Jaclyn Theek, a clinic director and speech-language pathologist at the Speech and Learning Institute in North Palm Beach told WPBF her clinic saw “a 364% patient increase in patient referrals of babies and toddlers from pediatricians and parents.”

Theek said: “There’s no research out there yet saying that this [masking] could be causing speech and language delays. But, most definitely, I’m sure it’s a factor.”

Representatives for the Speech and Learning Institute did not immediately return a Reuters request for comment.

Similar anecdotal evidence has previously been reported (here).

Experts from the American Speech-Language-Hearing Association (ASHA) (www.asha.org/about/) said evidence so far does not yet provide a clear answer.

Dr Diane Paul, Ph.D., Clinical Issues in Speech-Language Pathology Director at ASHA, told Reuters via email, “At this time, there is no evidence that use of facemasks by adults when talking to children prevents or delays speech and language development in typically developing young children.”

Paul said, regardless of mask use, some children will take longer to reach speech and language milestones—and some may need help from a speech-language pathologist.

Paul also said the claim circulating on social media “has no basis in research, and unnecessarily alarms parents and family members at a time when masks are saving lives.” She added doctors and researchers still “do not know the long-term impact” that masking will have on speech and language development.

The ASHA also provides recommendations for improved speech and development outcomes (here). The guidance includes tips such as making sure you have the child's attention before speaking and using your hands and your body language if messages don't seem to be received.

Dr Peter Smith, Developmental and Behavioral Pediatrics Chairperson at the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), agreed with ASHA’s assessment of the claim and told Reuters via email, “There is no data that supports the claim that masks delay language development.”

An article (here) sent to Reuters by the ASHA addresses concerns that masking could cause speech and development delays in children. It says that although worries are valid, there is no evidence to suggest face masks "interfere with speech and language development or social communication."

Paul said in some cultures “adults regularly wear face coverings without a detrimental effect on their child’s speech and language development.”

Psychologists at the University of Miami conducted a study suggesting that even with masks kids are “still benefiting from the language they are exposed to.”

One such speech and development study (here) conducted with preschoolers by the university also concluded that masks do not impede the language development of young children. The study found "no change in the children's ability to learn and produce language whether or not the students and their teacher were wearing masks."

Researchers who conducted the study before and during the pandemic discovered “that children were producing more complex speech sounds while wearing masks than without them.”

Comments and articles exploring the potential risks for childhood speech development with mask-wearing and ways to mitigate this can be seen (here), (here), and (here).

Further reporting on how the pandemic may negatively affect children in other ways can be seen (here), (here), (here), (here), (here).

VERDICT

Missing context. National experts in speech and child development say there is yet no concrete evidence to support claims that masks cause delays in speech and development in children. Screenshots on social media feature a headline about referrals to one clinic, not a controlled study.

This article was produced by the Reuters Fact Check team. Read more about our fact-checking work here .

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