As many as 80 percent of parents worldwide spank their children, according to a 2014 UNICEF report. But a meta-analysis of five decades of research published Wednesday in the Journal of Family Psychology suggests the disciplinary action can pose serious, long-term harm to children.
The research, which reviewed 160,000 children overall, linked repeated spanking to an increased risk of a child being defiant to his or her parents, anti-social, aggressive, mentally ill, and cognitively challenged.
Researchers who conducted the study, from the University of Texas at Austin and the University of Michigan, said their meta-analysis is the most comprehensive on spanking to date.
"Our analysis focuses on what most Americans would recognize as spanking and not on potentially abusive behaviors," study author Elizabeth Gershoff, an associate professor of human development and family sciences at The University of Texas at Austin, said in a news release. "We found that spanking was associated with unintended detrimental outcomes, and was not associated with more immediate or long-term compliance, which are parents' intended outcomes when they discipline their children."
Study authors defined spanking as an open-handed hit on the behind or extremities, and they found the disciplinary action was significantly linked with 13 of the 17 outcomes they analyzed. Researchers described all of those outcomes as detrimental.
“Spanking thus does the opposite of what parents usually want it to do,” co-author Grogan-Kaylor, an associate professor at the University of Michigan School of Social Work, said in the release.
Researchers drew their results by reviewing various studies and consistently found negative behavioral associations with spanking, regardless of the research model. They wrote in their study that there’s no clear evidence spanking can have a positive effect on children’s behavior and development, and that outcomes from spanking are similar to those from physical abuse.
"We as a society think of spanking and physical abuse as distinct behaviors," Gershoff said in the release. "Yet our research shows that spanking is linked with the same negative child outcomes as abuse, just to a slightly lesser degree."
In the news release, Gershoff noted that her team’s results fall in line with a recent Centers for Disease Control and Prevention report that called for "public engagement and education campaigns and legislative approaches to reduce corporal punishment," including spanking, as a means of reducing physical child abuse.
"We hope that our study can help educate parents about the potential harms of spanking and prompt them to try positive and non-punitive forms of discipline,” she said in the release.