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Spanking may affect children’s brain development

A study by researchers at Harvard University in the United States suggests that spanking a child may be more harmful to child development than previously thought. Spanking, as a form of discipline, can lead to changes in a child’s brain development, very similar to those that occur when severe forms of violence are experienced.

According to a recent study in the United States, it appears that spanking children is still a fairly common parenting method practiced. And although pediatricians and neurologists are calling for an end to the practice, it is still popular. The study found that about half of parents have administered corporal punishment to their children in the past year, and one-third did so in the past week preceding the survey.

According to U.S. researchers, children whose parents use corporal punishment are more likely to have mental health problems, anxiety, depression and behavioral problems, as well as substance use disorders later in life. The effects of spanking on children’s brain activity have not been studied before, so the purpose of this study was to see if spanking on a neurobiological level had an effect on brain development in children.

The study found that children who were spanked showed a stronger neural response in many regions of the prefrontal cortex, including areas that are part of the salience network. The salience network has an adaptive function, that is, it is responsible for maintaining a high level of safety in the body. This area of the brain is also responsible for responding to external stimuli, such as danger.

A group of scientists analyzed data collected from a study of children aged 3 to 11 years. However, attention was focused on 147 children aged 10 and 11 who were spanked. Children who had experienced more serious forms of violence were excluded from the study. Of the group identified, 40 children admitted to having been spanked at home.

During the study, the children were in an MRI machine and were shown images of actors on a computer screen with different facial expressions – mostly faces of horror and no emotion. During this time, the scanner recorded the child’s brain activity in response to each actor’s facial expression. The researchers analyzed the resulting scans of brain activity to determine whether the presented faces elicited different patterns of brain activity in children who were spanked compared to those whose parents did not use any corporal punishment.

The researchers showed that in almost all of the children, the fearful faces elicited a greater neuronal response in multiple brain regions than neutral faces. The brains of children who had been beaten showed a stronger response in many regions of the prefrontal cortex, compared to children who had not experienced violence. Children who had been abused also showed similar levels of activation of these brain areas.

The brain area that responded most strongly to terror was the left medial frontal gyrus (MFG) and bilateral dorsomedial prefrontal cortex (dmPFC), which includes the bilateral dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (dACC) and bilateral frontal pole.

spanking can change brain
Fig.1. Differences in neural response to fearful and neutral faces in children receiving spanking compared to those whose parents did not use any corporal punishment.
Spanked children show significantly greater activation of brain regions to fearful and neutral faces than children who were never spanked. Brain regions in which the magnitude of increased activation to the sight of fearful faces compared to neutral faces was greatest are shown in yellow, and lesser but still statistically significant activation is shown in red.
dACC = dorsal anterior cingulate cortex; MFG = middle frontal gyrus; SFG = superior frontal gyrus; dmPFC = dorsal medial prefrontal cortex.
[Republished by the author of  10.1111/cdev.13565]

Any form of bodily integrity violation, even the smallest, affects brain development, according to US researchers. This study adds to previous findings linking severe forms of corporal punishment to atypical structural brain development. A child’s brain reacts the same whether spanked, beaten, or any other form of violence.

The researchers hope that their discovery may encourage an end to corporal punishment of children and open people’s eyes to the potential negative consequences of corporal punishment.

These findings are described in the article entitled „Corporal Punishment and Elevated Neural Response to Threat in Children” published in the journal Child Development, 09.04.2021
(Cuartas J., Weissman D.G., Sheridan M.A., Lengua L., McLaughlin K.A.)

Translation was done with the assistance of DeepL translator.