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Some Teens Are Anxious About Taking Off Their Masks

He and his friends were planning to keep their masks on, at least at first. “If it really seems OK, then I think we might take them off. But as of now, I feel most comfortable when I have it on.”

Taking off masks also represents a social transition during a developmental period when young people become hypersensitive to what others think of them and particularly concerned about their appearance, Dr. Choukas-Bradley said. Starting in the preteen and early teen years, she said, kids often develop what psychologists call an “imaginary audience” that makes them feel like there is a spotlight on them and their flaws. And as they start to spend less time with parents and more time with peers, social status and cultural standards of beauty become extremely important, especially for girls, she said.

The imaginary audience shapes how teenagers think about even ordinary tasks like getting dressed, speaking in class or going shoe shopping, said Seth Pollak, a psychologist and director of the Child Emotion Lab at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Whereas an adult may be thinking about cost or comfort, an adolescent may think about what specific people at school are going to think when they walk into homeroom in the new shoes. Those people aren’t necessarily friends. They may even be enemies.

“Some adolescents’ lives are very dominated by these audiences in their heads that they think are really attending to and scrutinizing them,” he said.

Social media has only exacerbated the fixation that teens may have about their appearance and concerns about being judged, many studies show. Even before the pandemic, teenagers were concerned with looking attractive on social media, said Dr. Choukas-Bradley, whose research has connected these kinds of concerns with an elevated risk of depression.

The implications of mask choices are also being magnified on social platforms. “Mask fishing,” the idea that someone could be hiding facial flaws under a mask, first emerged on dating apps but became a trend on TikTok late last year. Several recent videos have amassed tens of millions of views, with young people pointing out kids in their schools who may or may not be mask fishing, and even asking others to rate their own faces.

“The imaginary audience is no longer imaginary,” Dr. Choukas-Bradley said. “At any given moment, I could be photographed or videoed, and my peers can see what I’m doing and what I look like.”

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