An international study shows that in countries where there is a complete ban on all corporal punishment of children there is less fighting among young people. There was 31% less physical fighting in young men and 42% less physical fighting in young women in countries where corporal punishment was banned in all settings, compared with those where corporal punishment was permitted both at school and at home.
In countries where there was a partial ban on corporal punishment (such as in Canada, the US and the UK where corporal punishment not banned in at home), the level of violence in young men was similar to that in countries with no bans, though the level of violence in women was lower (at 56%).
Previous studies have shown a clear relationship between childhood spanking and a host of negative outcomes later on ranging from aggression to mental health problems. In this case, however, the researchers caution that they see an association rather than a causal relationship between legal bans on corporal punishment and violence in youth.
“All we can say, at this point, is that countries that prohibit the use of corporal punishment are less violent for children to grow up in than countries that do not,” says Frank Elgar, of McGill University’s Institute for Health and Social Policy, the lead author on the study. “At this point we are simply taking a stratospheric view of the issue at an international level and note the correlation. To be able to show an effect of bans on youth violence, we will need to go back in 4-8 years after more data has been collected. We will also need to ask children and youth more questions about what’s going on at home, something that researchers have typically been shy to do.”
Frequent fighting was generally more common in young men (close to 10%) than in young women (about 3%) Fighting varied widely from one country to the next ranging from under 1% in Costa Rican young women to close to 35% in Samoan young men
The researchers found that the associations between corporal punishment and youth violence remained, even after taking potential confounders were taken into account such as per capita income, murder rates and parent education programmes to prevent child maltreatment.
The researchers used data gathered from adolescents in 88 countries around the world by the World Health Organisation Health Behaviour in School Aged Children (HBSC) study and the Global School-Based Health Survey (GSHS). The youth responded to survey questions at varying ages about how often they got into fights. The researchers correlated this information with data from each country about the prohibition of corporal punishment. Countries were grouped into: those with a complete ban on the use of corporal punishment at home and in schools (30 countries, the majority of which are in Europe, as well as a smaller number in Latin America, Asia and Africa); those with a ban in schools but not in the home (38 countries, among them China, the US, UK, and Canada), and those with no ban on corporal punishment (20 countries, ranging from Myanmar to the Solomon Islands).
Objective: To examine the association between corporal punishment bans and youth violence at an international level.
Design: Ecological study of low-income to high-income 88 countries.
Setting: School-based health surveys of students.
Participants: 403 604 adolescents.
Interventions: National corporal punishment bans.
Primary outcome measure: Age-standardised prevalence of frequent physical fighting (4+ episodes in the previous year) for male and female adolescents in each country.
Results: Frequent fighting was more common in males (9.9%, 95% CI 9.1% to 10.7%) than females (2.8%, 95% CI 2.5% to 3.1%) and varied widely between countries, from 0.9% (95% CI 0.8% to 0.9%) in Costa Rican females to 34.8% (95% CI 34.7 to 35.0) in Samoan males. Compared with 20 countries with no ban, the group of 30 countries with full bans (in schools and in the home) experienced 69% the rate of fighting in males and 42% in females. Thirty-eight countries with partial bans (in schools but not in the home) experienced less fighting in females only (56% the rate found in countries without bans).
Conclusions: Country prohibition of corporal punishment is associated with less youth violence. Whether bans precipitated changes in child discipline or reflected a social milieu that inhibits youth violence remains unclear due to the study design and data limitations. However, these results support the hypothesis that societies that prohibit the use of corporal punishment are less violent for youth to grow up in than societies that have not.
Frank J Elgar, Peter D Donnelly, Valerie Michaelson, Geneviève Gariépy, Kira E Riehm, Sophie D Walsh, William Pickett