Researchers at University College London, who reviewed 20 years of research on the topic, found that physical punishment is not effective in improving children’s behaviour, and instead makes it worse.
Published in The Lancet on Monday, the research, which looked at 69 studies from across the world, identified several key outcomes.
Researchers found that physical punishment of children increases the risk of involvement with child protection services and that smacking leads to worsening behaviour over time.
Dr Anja Heilmann, a professor in UCL’s department of epidemiology and public health and a lead author of the study, said there is “a definitive link between physical punishment and behavioural problems such as aggression and antisocial behaviour”.
“Physical punishment consistently predicts increases in these types of behavioural difficulties,” she added. The study found that detrimental outcomes occurred irrespective of the child’s sex, ethnicity or general parenting styles of their caregivers.
While a causal link between physical punishment and increased behavioural problems was identified, there was no link between smacking and improved behaviour.
Researchers found no improvements to children’s attention, cognitive abilities, relationships with others, reactivity to stress, or social competence.
The study’s authors said their findings suggest that calls to introduce a ban on physical punishment of children are warranted.
Jillian van Turnhout, a co-author of the paper and a former senator in the Irish parliament, said children need to be protected from physical punishment.
“A home should be a safe place for children, yet in many countries, the law can make it one of the most unsafe places for them. Countries need to do all they can to ensure that all children have equal protection from all forms of harm, including physical punishment,” Turnhour said.
As per UNICEF, approximately 250 million children worldwide between the ages of two and four are subjected to physical punishment. Smacking children is currently prohibited in 62 countries, including Scotland and Wales.
Under England’s current laws, parents are allowed to smack their children if it amounts to ‘reasonable punishment”. Any physical punishment that is severe enough to leave a mark or a bruise can be prosecuted for assault.
Both the NSPCC and the Royal College of Pediatrics and Child Health have called on the government to introduce a ban in England.
Joanna Barrett, NSPCC’s associate head of policy, told The Independent: “This is yet another significant study that shows physical punishment is harmful to children.
“It cannot be right that in 2021 children are the only group in society that it is legally acceptable to assault in England. The case for reform is beyond doubt.
“With legal change already in Scotland and Wales, Westminster is behind the curve on this issue and urgently needs to make sure children in England have the same protection as those in other parts of the UK,” she said.
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