Is it ever okay to shame children online?

The method of discipline is a polarising issue.
The method of discipline is a polarising issue. Photo: Getty Images

Terri Day Evans, who reportedly lives in Wales, is the latest parent facing criticism for publicly shaming her son online. Tagging him in a Facebook post, Evans wrote that her 12-year-old had "[seen] fit to purposefully tread on a new girls foot at school and twist his foot with such force it broke her brand new shoes (causing the heel) to snap. If you so much as breath in her or anyone's direction in a bullying manner I will personally hand you over to their parents for every demeaning chore they see fit for as long as they do… kiss goodbye to your birthday money as you will be buying the girl a new pair of shoes and a bunch of flowers!"

Shared over 58,000 times and attracting hundreds of comments, the post was eventually removed. Defending her actions, Evans posted an update in response to criticism that she too, was engaging in bullying and unnecessarily humiliation. "I don't much care who doesn't agree with my parenting style, my son humiliated and embarrassed a girl, regardless of his reasoning that little girl still cried,' she wrote. "So my so called embarrassing him online is...nothing in comparison to the humiliation that little girl had to face walking round with a broken shoe."

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Photo: Facebook/Terri Day Evans

Evans reiterated that while she stood by the punishment she regretted that the post had gone viral. Evans also acknowledged that her son "is not bully, he's a numpty who made a mistake," and that she chose to nip the behaviour in the bud to prevent any future occurrences.

Evans is one of a growing number of parents taking to social media to discipline their children in a very public forum. In 2011, a woman in Townsville made headlines for pinning a sign with the words, "Do not trust me. I will steal from you as I am a thief," to the front and back of her son's body. He was also observed wearing Shrek ears and writing lines while sitting in public.

The method of discipline is a polarising issue, many parents agreeing with the approach, others calling it out as bullying - behaviour akin to "emotional abuse." While the research tells us that adults who were physically disciplined as children face higher odds of mental health problems, including mood and anxiety disorders, given its relatively new nature, there's no research around the long-term impact of children who've been publicly shamed.

And yet, it's already been linked to the death of a young girl. In a tragic case last year, a father from Tacoma, Washington filmed his 13-year-old daughter, her long hair cut off and visible on the floor around her. "Man you lost all that beautiful hair," he is heard saying in the audio. "Was it worth it?" The teen was reportedly being punished for sending a boy a "racy" photo. Police revealed that the father never intended for the video to be made public, instead, created as a reminder for his daughter. It did, however, end up online after the 13-year-old shared it with friends. The video went viral and only days later, she took her own life. Although we can't know the exact reasons behind her decision, the video has been suggested as the main contributing factor.

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The young girl's death brought the public-shaming-as-discipline issue to the fore, prompting commentary from parents and experts alike. Although parents' views remain divided, the consensus from experts is that publicly shaming children is never OK. Psychologist, Norma Simon told TIME, "The reaction to shame is an inherent sense that you're no good, that you're damaged as a person. And if you're no good, what hope do you have of correcting what's going on?"

Psychologists also make the distinction between guilt and shame, when it comes to explaining responses to behaviour. While guilt is linked to the desire to make amends, feelings of shame can result in anger and not necessarily remorse. In fact, research has shown that shame can make people less likely to take responsibility for their actions. 

So why do parents choose this form of discipline? And why do others support it? Despite all the negative criticism Evans received for her Facebook post, she was also widely praised. Lydia Woodyatt, a professor at Flinders University told Wired that public shaming can be a way to encourage "normative group behaviour." She says, "We enjoy a story of a person who gets taken out when they deserve it. We can get a social and psychological payoff for sharing our passionate and perhaps, short-lived outrage. The outrage we share might be more about us as humans, our motivation and our social identity, than it is about the target of our outrage."

And it's not simply that shaming is ineffective as a deterrent for poor behaviour. There are other reasons why the approach can be damaging for a young person. As parents of digital natives, we tell our kids that "the internet is forever." We remind them to think about what they post, how they respond to others' posts and how much they choose to share. Publicly shaming children online, violating their privacy and placing information that could easily jeopardise future employment opportunities (and their reputation in general) contradicts this message entirely. It's also likely to result in a parent-child relationship where there's a significant lack of trust, something that's crucial for normal development, particularly in the tumultuous teenage years.

Evans herself admitted in her updated posts that her son is a "numpty who made a mistake." And while there's no question that he needs to be held accountable for his actions, for a zero tolerance approach to bullying to be reinforced by both his parents and the school, the "mistake" he made as a 12-year-old "numpty" will follow him, as part of his digital footprint, for years to come.

What do you think about public shaming as a method of discipline?