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Throughout the pandemic (and before) one of my favorite commentators on parenting has been Emily Oster, an economist with an eye on data and parenting. She uses her expertise to analyze how to best make parenting decisions, and her books on pregnancy and parenting from an evidenced-based perspective are invaluable. As too have her contributions been during the COVID-era, much to the chagrin of COVIDians.
Oster writes a newsletter on data and parenting in addition to her books and opinions pieces across the journalism world. Today’s tackled an interesting study on a drastic decline in IQ for babies born admid the pandemic, which I haven’t spoken about it because, like Oster, I was wary of the dramatic conclusions it reached.
On its face, the results in this study are very concerning. The researchers do a number of analyses, but the top line is there are large negative effects of the pandemic on cognitive performance. In one of their main analyses, the reduction in IQ scores is 27 to 37 IQ points (on a mean of 100).
This effect can also be stated as a two-standard-deviation reduction in IQ. This is a very significant change. One way to frame it: this change would move a child from having an average IQ to the 5th percentile. Or another: this is about twice as large as the measured impact of being born at an extremely low birth weight (less than 2.2 pounds).
Given these findings, it is reasonable to be concerned. If they are correct, I’d go beyond that to say we should be literally panicking. But are they right? (Spoiler: no.)
Again, taken at face value, these results are worrisome. However — and I cannot stress this enough — they are completely implausible. There is absolutely no way that there was a reduction in IQ of 82 points as a result of being born during the pandemic. In fact, there is also no way there was a reduction of 27 IQ points. Even 15 seems impossible. IQ is just not malleable in this way. Extremely low birth weight is among the most significant reducers of IQ, and even that is a fraction of the size of these effects.
What I think is a more likely explanation is masks. The tests during the pandemic were done with the testing staff wearing masks. I’m not anti-masking! But it seems extremely plausible that infants and toddlers in a lab setting would have more trouble following verbal instructions and facial cues from a masked interviewer than an unmasked one. This is probably especially true since these babies would have mostly interacted with unmasked adults (i.e. their parents), so the masking may have been even more of a factor than it would be for an older child who was more used to it.
The authors mention this in the conclusion but do not make much of it. It might have been helpful to see a more detailed breakdown of the results by measures that could or could not have been impacted by masking. For example, some of the measures are things like whether the child can sit or roll over, which are likely less affected.
Maybe it’s not masks! I don’t know. That strikes me as the most obvious explanation, but without getting into the data, I cannot tell precisely. What I can tell you, based on what we know about IQ, is that the pandemic did not lower baby IQ by 82 points. It just didn’t.
You may ask: Could the pandemic affect the IQ of babies or children? Absolutely. Certainly we have seen learning losses in school-age children, and it’s possible there could be some developmental effects in babies. Or not — it is less obvious we’d see these effects than school-age learning loss. It’s a question we should continue to ask and evaluate. My point is simply that we do not learn about it from this paper.
I agree with Oster’s conclusion that the results are likely affected by the researchers masking. I differ with her dismissal of all of the study’s conclusions because of it. These results show a real effect of masking on child development. Oster is correct that it likely swayed these conclusions; but we then have to admit: Masking has an impact on child development, and it’s significant and measurable. It’s not out of the question to assume that that effect might have long-term implications for children spending their days, the majority of their waking hours, around masked caregivers.
Instead of dismissing these conclusions as improbable outliers, it would be nice to admit that there is something statistically significant happening to child development during the pandemic, and behave accordingly. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) dismissed the possibility of a developmental impact recently:
Babies and young children study faces, so you may worry that having masked caregivers would harm children’s language development. There are no studies to support this concern. Young children will use other clues like gestures and tone of voice. https://t.co/Rj1pnT6Bfk pic.twitter.com/rrO9yTujNi
— American Academy of Pediatrics (@AmerAcadPeds) August 12, 2021
Well, now we have a study. If they still care about children, they’ll choose to investigate instead of just dismiss the notion out of hand due to the prevailing winds of the day.Published in