Smacking a child may affect their brain development in ways similar to more severe forms of violence, according to a new study by researchers at Harvard University.
The research found that children who had been smacked showed greater neural activity in certain regions of their brain that usually respond to threat cues.
Building on existing studies that show heightened activity in parts of the brains of children who experience abuse in response to threats, researchers found a similar response was activated in children who had been smacked.
Smacking is a form of corporal punishment, which is defined as the use of physical force to cause a child to experience pain or discomfort, however light. It is a legal form of punishment in over 130 countries, and is legal in some parts of the UK under certain circumstances.
Scotland is the only UK nation to have banned smacking children altogether, but in England, Wales and Northern Ireland, it is legal for a parent or carer to smack their own child if it amounts to a “reasonable punishment”. This is assessed by taking the child’s age and the force of the smack into account.
Otherwise, it is illegal for teachers, nursery workers, workers in other education settings, and privately employed babysitters to smack a child in their care.
The Harvard research, published in the Society for Research in Child Development Journal, warns that corporal punishment has been linked to the development of mental health issues, anxiety, depression, behavioural problems and substance abuse disorders.
The study analysed data gathered from 147 children aged between 10 and 11 who had been smacked, excluding children who had also experienced more severe forms of violence.
Each child was shown different images of actors making “fearful” or “neutral” faces, and a scanner captured brain activity in response to each kind of face. The scans were then analysed to determine whether the faces sparked different patterns of brain activity in children who were smacked compared to those who weren’t.
The study authors wrote: “On average, across the entire sample, fearful faces elicited greater activation than neutral faces in many regions throughout the brain… and children who were spanked demonstrated greater activation in multiple regions of PFC to fearful relative to neutral faces than children who were never spanked.
“There were no regions of the brain where activation to fearful relative to neutral faces differed between children who were abused and children who were spanked,” they added.
Professor Katie A McLaughlin, senior researcher on the study and director of the Stress & Development Lab in Harvard’s Department of Psychology, said: “We know that children whose families use corporal punishment are more likely to develop anxiety, depression, behaviour problems and other mental health problems, but many people don’t think about spanking as a form of violence.”
She said the findings are in line with other studies carried out on children who had not experienced severe violence and suggested that “while we might not conceptualise corporal punishment to be a form of punishment, in terms of how a child’s brain responds, it’s not all that difference than abuse”.
Jorge Cuartas, first author of the study and a Ph.D student in education at the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, added: “These findings aligned with the predictions from other perspectives on the potential consequences of corporal punishment.
“By identifying certain neural pathways that explain the consequences of corporal punishment in the brain, we can further suggest that this kind of punishment might be detrimental to children and we have more avenues to explore it.”
The researchers noted that their findings did not mean that corporal punishment impacts “every child the same way” and that “children can be resilient if exposed to potential adversities”.
Mr Cuartas added: “But the important message is that corporal punishment is a risk that can increase potential problems for children’s development, and following a precautionary principle, parents and policymakers should work toward trying to reduce its prevalence.”
A spokesperson for the NSPCC said: “There is clear evidence that physical punishment damages children’s wellbeing and is linked to poorer outcomes in childhood and adulthood.
“We would encourage parents to use alternative methods to teach their children the differences between right and wrong, with a positive parenting approach such as setting clear and consistent boundaries.”