Does physical punishment of children lead to a higher risk of mental or physical illness later in life? Today we look at two research studies on that subject, and then describe what a Google researcher found about child abuse when he studied searches done on google.com.
First, a study published in the journal Pediatrics July 2012 concluded, after examining records of over 34,000 adults, that those who had received harsh physical punishment as children (pushing, grabbing, shoving, slapping, hitting), even without more severe mistreatment (physical, sexual or emotional abuse or neglect), had a significantly greater risk of mental illness as adults.
It is already well established that children who have been mentally or physically abused have a much higher risk of mental illness, but the study showed that even lower levels of punishment such as grabbing or slapping the child increased the risk of later psychological problems including mood and anxiety disorders, alcohol and drug abuse, and personality disorders.
The second study, published July 15, 2013, also in Pediatrics, showed an association between physical punishment of children and later development of physical problems such as obesity and cardiovascular disease.
The data for this study was collected as part of the National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions done in the United States in the early 2000s, and researchers wanted to see if there was any association between adults who said they received physical punishment as a child “sometimes or more often”, with a number of different physical problems in adulthood.
The researchers, after “factoring out” effects from other variables such as ethnicity, marital status, education, etc., concluded that children who received physical punishments were 24% more likely to become obese, 35% more likely to develop arthritis, and 38% more likely to develop cardiovascular disease than children who were not physically punished.
Regarding Google searches, Seth Stephens-Davidowitz, who works for Google (after graduating from Stanford and Harvard ), did an interesting study where he examined the various terms people (here, children) used in searches. Examples: “Why did my father hit me?” or “My dad beat me”.
The rest of the story involves what some call the “Great Recession” in the United States—the economic crisis roughly from 2006 through 2009. During hard economic times, most child protective service agencies expect more reports of childhood mistreatment, as more parents are stressed and more are languishing at home, underemployed.
However, initially child protective authorities were happy that reports of child abuse actually dropped slightly during those years. However, the Google study revealed that this was just a statistical “victory”, and did not represent what was happening in the real world.
The Google study revealed that during these years, the number of searches regarding abuse went up (beyond the expected growth rates of google.com) by 3% for each one percent rise in the unemployment rate (which at it’s peak was near 10% in the US). And states that had the worst unemployment problems had greater increases in searches for abuse.
The reason that official reporting of child abuse cases dropped slightly during these years is complex, but the big issue may be that during those years, due to budgetary constraints, US states cut back on child protective services, so there were fewer resources and child protective agencies available to report abuse, but it was happening, and probably at a greater rate than before economic hard times.
In conclusion, physically punishing children seems like a bad deal all-around. It predisposes children to develop mental illness and physical diseases as adults; much better is to find alternative techniques such as taking away privileges or having “time outs”. For questions, you might check out the various links in this article, talk to your pediatrician, or find a good book on the subject.
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