Countries that ban corporal punishment boast lower rates of youth violence, according to a new study in BMJ Open. The results, culled from an analysis of violent behavior in 88 countries, suggests that overall rates of physical fighting among young men and women are up to 69 percent lower when national laws forbid parents from slapping or spanking their children.
“These findings add to a growing body of evidence on links between corporal punishment and adolescent health and safety,” the study authors write. “A growing number of countries have banned corporal punishment as an acceptable means of child discipline and this is an important step that should be encouraged.”
Data from Unicef estimates that 17 percent of adolescents worldwide have experienced corporal punishment either at school or at home in the past month. While proponents of corporal punishment argue that the occasional, benevolent slap can be healthy, studies broadly suggest that children subject to corporal punishment exhibit more aggressive behaviors as they mature. One meta-analysis of 75 studies found that kids who are spanked are more likely to develop aggression, antisocial behaviour, mental health problems, and low self-esteem. “Children and adolescents learn from corporal punishment that physical violence is an effective and permissible way of settling conflicts and influencing the behaviour of others,” the authors write.
But until now, there was scant evidence that corporal punishment could have population-level impacts on youth violence. For this new study, researchers examined the results of a World Health Organization survey of 88 countries. Thirty of these countries had implemented a full ban on corporal punishment at home or in school, 38 prohibited corporal punishment in school but not at home, and 20 had no bans whatsoever. They found that youth within the 20 countries that allow corporal punishment reported 69 percent higher rates of physical fighting than youth living in countries that prohibit corporal punishment at home and in school. In countries operating a partial ban—such as the US, the UK, and Canada—rates were closer to 42 percent lower.
It is important to note that this was an observational study and, as such, it is impossible to use this data to prove that corporal punishment leads to higher rates of youth violence. But the correlation is striking, and present even after researchers accounted for differences in wealth and other potentially confounding factors. This strongly suggests that public initiatives to diminish corporal punishment could have widespread impacts on youth safety.
“These results support the hypothesis that societies that prohibit the use of corporal punishment are less violent for youth to grow up in,” the authors conclude.