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NEW YORK (Reuters Health) - Regardless of the culture a child lives in, corporal punishment may do lasting psychological harm, German researchers say.
In a new study conducted in Tanzania, where physical punishment is considered normal, primary school students who were beaten by teachers or family members in the name of discipline tended to show more behavior problems, not fewer, the researchers found.
"Parents aim to educate children through corporal punishment, but instead of learning good social behaviors, the beatings often have the opposite effect," said Tobias Hecker, a psychologist at the University of Konstanz, who led the study.
"Some people still believe, despite an overwhelming body of evidence, that corporal punishment in some cultures won't result in as many negative effects," George Holden told Reuters Health.
"But, as this study shows, it's difficult to find support for that argument," said Holden, a professor of psychology at Southern Methodist University in Dallas, who was not involved in the study.
Past research, mainly in industrialized countries, has found that children and teens who experience corporal punishment may "externalize" their negative experiences in the form of bad behavior and emotional problems, Hecker and his colleagues write in the journal Child Abuse & Neglect.
To test whether the same is true in a culture where physical punishment is the norm and the law allows teachers to use it, the researchers interviewed 409 children between grades 2 and 7 at one private school in Tanzania, on the east coast of Africa.
Participants averaged 10.5 years old. Ninety-five percent of the boys and girls said they had been physically punished at least once in their lifetime by a teacher. The same percentage reported physical punishment from parents or caregivers.
The majority of children, 82 percent, had been beaten with sticks, belts or other objects and 66 percent had been punched, slapped or pinched.
Nearly one-quarter of the kids had experienced punishment so severe that they were injured.
"Children learn aggressive behavior and become more aggressive toward other children," Hecker said.
Within the group, 21 percent of the boys and girls showed aggression problems through affirmative answers to questions like, "Have you ever taken things from others against their will?"
Nine percent of children had higher-than-normal levels of hyperactivity. About 11 percent of the kids showed less empathetic behavior than peers who had not experienced physical punishment.
"From this study, it's difficult to generalize the results to milder forms of punishment, like spanking," said Christopher Ferguson of Stetson University in Florida.
"There's a difference between a parent who spanks a child in the context of a loving family and explains what the spanking is for compared with the parent who starts swatting because of some other non-related situation," said Ferguson, who was not involved in the research.
"The context is probably important but we really haven't dealt with it yet," he added.
Thirty-four countries in the world have laws against corporal punishment, according to the Global Initiative to End All Corporal Punishment of Children. In 1979, Sweden became the first country to make corporal punishment illegal.
"Certainly everyone wants to see physical abuse eliminated as much as possible," said Robert Larzelere of Oklahoma State University in Stillwater.
But the new research can only point to a relationship between behavioral problems and physical force for punishment - not a causal link, said Larzelere, who was not part of the study.
He pointed out that the researchers did not measure the children's behavior before corporal punishment occurred.
Hecker and his team acknowledge in their report that their study does not establish cause and effect. It could be argued that children with behavioral problems may be more likely to experience physical punishment.
At a minimum, they note, even if that is the case, their results show that corporal punishment does not improve children's behavior.
Hecker said he hopes this new study will help bring about awareness in places like Tanzania, where corporal punishment still is widespread.
"What people usually see after a spanking or beating is immediate compliance," Hecker said. "But in the long-term, they are really instilling fear in the child and children do act out of fear but not out of respect."
"I think the most effective program to prevent violence is to focus on positive parenting," he said.
SOURCE: bit.ly/1j6Hy3G Child Abuse & Neglect, online December 17, 2013.