Less violent behavior seen in teens where spanking is illegal

(Reuters Health) - Teens may be less likely to get in fist fights when they live in countries where it’s illegal for parents to spank or slap children as punishment for bad behavior, an international study suggests.

Researchers examined data on more than 403,000 adolescents in 88 countries that are home to almost half of the world’s teenagers. Overall, rates of physical fighting were 42 percent lower among girls and 69 percent lower among boys in countries with full bans on corporal punishment at home and in school than in nations without prohibitions on spanking or hitting kids.

“Kids mimic their parents’ behavior,” said lead author Frank Elgar, a researcher at McGill University in Montreal.

“Corporal punishment teaches children that physical force is an acceptable way to change someone’s behavior,” Elgar said by email. “It’s a powerful lesson that carries through to their own social relationships in later life, including their own parenting styles, even men’s violence towards women.”

While the study focused on government policies, not individual parents’ approaches to discipline, the results suggest that discouraging corporal punishment at a national level may help shape teens’ attitudes about violence and their propensity to get into physical fights, researchers note in BMJ Open.

An estimated 17 percent of adolescents worldwide have experienced corporal punishment at home or in school in the past month, researchers note.

Corporal punishment is typically intended to cause pain but not physically injure children. Proponents argue that it is harmless or even beneficial to long-term health, but the practice has been linked to aggressive behavior, mental health problems and academic and cognitive challenges, the study authors write.

To find out if national bans might affect rates of youth violence around the globe, the researchers drew on data from two longstanding surveys of teen behavior in 88 countries: the World Health Organization Health Behavior in School Aged Children (HBSC) study and the Global School-based Health Survey (GSHS).

The surveys included a question on whether, and how often, the respondent had been involved in a physical fight over the past 12 months.

Thirty countries had implemented a full ban on corporal punishment at school and at home; 38 had bans only for schools; and 20 had no bans in place.

Physical fighting was more than three times more common in boys than girls, the analysis found. It also varied widely by country, with the proportion of youth engaged in violent behavior ranging from less than one percent of girls in Costa Rica to nearly 35 percent of boys in Samoa.

In countries with partial bans that only applied to schools - which includes the UK, the U.S. and Canada - fighting wasn’t any less common among boys that it was in nations with no ban at all. But fighting was 56 percent less common among teen girls.

These associations held true even after accounting for other potentially influential factors, such as national wealth, the murder rate, and social programs aiming to curb teens’ exposure to violence at home and at school.

The study wasn’t a controlled experiment designed to prove whether or how national policies on corporal punishment directly impacted parenting choices or teen behavior. It also didn’t examine the frequency or severity of any exposure to spanking or hitting.

Even so, the results add to evidence suggesting that children’s exposure to violence at home and at school can have a lasting impact on their behavior later in life, said Andrew Riley, a researcher at Oregon Health & Science University in Portland who wasn’t involved in the study.

“We know that corporal punishment increases the risk of many poor outcomes later in life: interpersonal violence, behavioral and mental health problems, physical health problems, and poorer academic performance to name a few,” Riley said by email. “The effects are probably worst when parenting practices are harsh and inconsistent overall.”

SOURCE: BMJ Open, online October 15, 2018.