Why some teens prefer to keep their masks on
Fourteen-year-old student C. Lim prefers to keep his mask on, though Covid-19 restrictions have eased.
Taking off one's mask outdoors has been permitted since late last month, but the Secondary 2 student is self-conscious about showing his face.
"Before Covid-19, I didn't feel insecure. But now I do," he says.
He distrusts the compliments he sometimes gets about his looks. For instance, when hawkers call him "shuai ge" (Mandarin for handsome guy), he thinks they are being polite to make him "feel good".
Like other teens, he is familiar with the concept of "mask fishing". Popular on TikTok, the slang term means to look better wearing a mask than without it.
It is derived from the term "cat fishing", which involves deceiving someone into thinking that one is far better-looking than one really is.
"I look better with the mask on," says the teen, adding that he tends to go along with whether his friends are masking up or not. "I don't want to be left out from the crowd."
Even with the option to go mask-off outdoors, many teens, as well as adults, continue to mask up outdoors, motivated by convenience and caution.
But some adolescents here also have feelings of social anxiety regarding masking-off, which they may be particularly vulnerable to at their stage in life, when their bodies are changing; they are beginning to forge a separate identity from their parents; and peer acceptance becomes increasingly important.
Ms Yeoh Lai Lin, a counsellor at Limitless, a youth mental health organisation, says: "There's an added sense of self-consciousness, where some teens may feel safer with a mask."
A face covering may serve not to draw attention to themselves or they may think that others are judging them, adds Ms Yeoh.
She says: "Teenagers look a lot to their friends for validation and support. One way is through the way they look. They don't want their friends to think they're unattractive in any way."
Ms Andrea Chan, assistant director at Touch Mental Wellness, which specialises in mental wellness awareness and counselling programmes, notes that the length of the pandemic is a factor.
Started more than two years ago, Covid-19 restrictions have spanned the duration of key developmental milestones for many young people.
Ms Chan says: "For a long time, they were able to hide their pimples behind masks. A young person might have gone from having perfect skin, having not undergone puberty, to suddenly having the option of masking off. That creates some anxiety and body-image issues, especially for younger teenagers."
Some older adolescents - such as those moving from secondary school to polytechnics, at a time when approved group sizes have grown - may have similar concerns, she says.
Ms Chan says: "We have teens asking us, 'How do I manage the impression I give others? How will others' impression of me change when they see my face?'"
While the developmental task of adolescents is to establish their identity apart from their parents, "it is still the adults in the society that they are looking to", says Dr Natalie Games, a clinical psychological at Alliance Counselling, which offers counselling and psychotherapy services.
Many teens and adults find it inconvenient to keep taking off and putting on face masks when moving between outdoors and indoors, she says.
Another underlying concern, where teens take their cues from adults, could be whether it is safe to go without a mask, she says.
Shim Nur Istin Sherfoel Herman, 13, keeps her mask on as much as possible because she is keenly aware that the pandemic is not over yet.
She says: "I'm worried about catching Covid-19 again. I also don't want to miss school."
She had a bad bout of Covid-19 earlier this year, where she was feverish for several days, with a painful throat unassuaged by drinking lots of water.
Her friend and Secondary 2 classmate, Mohammad Zaihairy Qushairy Mohammad Zaidy, also 13, adds that wearing a mask has become ingrained.
Zaihairy says: "I feel comfortable with it on. It's normal; we've been wearing masks for almost two-and-a-half years."
Keeping masks on can bestow other advantages.
Mr Muhammad Alamin AB Majid, a youth worker at AMP @ Jurong Point, a drop-in centre for adolescents, says: "Some youth now incorporate the mask as part of their identity."
He has encountered teens who match their masks with what they wear, as well as others who wear masks with smileys or other facial expressions, to show their mood for the day.
Besides, some teens describe how their mask can also provide an inscrutable veneer, hiding an impolitic smirk or a fed-up expression, adds Mr Alamin.
Still, other teenagers relish doffing their masks outdoors.
Citing Singapore's high rates of vaccination, polytechnic student Lee Yihung, 18, says: "I think everyone should go back to pre-Covid-19 norms."
Ethan Ng, a 17-year-old student, says simply that the freedom of going mask-free is "shiok" (Singlish for enjoyable).
How mask-wearing has affected younger kids
Apprehension about taking masks off outdoors can affect toddlers and pre-schoolers as well as teenagers.
Some teachers say having masks off can help them teach young children how to sound words better, as they can now see "how the mouth moves", according to Ms Andrea Chan, assistant director at Touch Mental Wellness, which specialises in mental wellness awareness and counselling programmes. The organisation also has programmes in schools.
Having masks on can also lead to young children missing out on "learning to read non-verbal cues like frowns or smiles", says Ms Chan, 35, who is married to a 43-year-old production manager.
"If their EQ (emotional quotient) is not developed from a young age, not being able to read other people's emotions becomes a norm. For example, toddlers who have never seen strangers without masks on, as social distancing became a way of life, may develop a fear of crowds."
Her two-year-old daughter, who was born during the pandemic, sometimes communicates in an "exaggerated" way, such as by shouting in anger, rather than showing her displeasure in a lower-octane tantrum, says Ms Chan, who also has an eight-year-old son. She says this could be to compensate for wearing a mask, which hides expressions.
It may take time to get young children used to mask-free scenarios, since they have spent their whole life under the cloud of pandemic restrictions thus far.
Ms Chan says a good first step is when the caregiver has a strong connection with the child, which would provide the child with a sense of security if he or she shows signs of concern in mask-off scenarios.
Taking cues from the caregiver, "the child will calm down naturally", says Ms Chan.