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November/December 2015 Issue

Technology Trends: Social Media Shaming — Parenting Strategy Failure
By Susan A. Knight
Social Work Today
Vol. 15 No. 6 P. 8

Through social media networks, anyone with an Internet connection now has ready access to an online audience. While this capability has been incredibly beneficial in countless ways, it also creates the potential for enormous harm through malicious or indiscriminate use. This is reflected in the associated lexicon that has developed, which includes commonly used terms such as cybertheft, cyberstalking, and cyberbullying. A disturbing trend that has emerged with the increased use of social media is that of parents using these networks to publicly shame their children as a form of punishment.

Parents publicly shaming their children didn't start with the creation of social media sites, nor is such behavior confined to this medium. However, social media has exacerbated the issue in a few key ways. While the content posted to social media is meant to be accessible to the public, the actual process of posting the content is often quite private. This eliminates the opportunity for negative feedback or any type of social disapproval early in the process, which might dissuade the parent from following through. By virtue of being posted online, these shaming incidents have the potential to be observed by a much wider audience than was possible in a pre-Internet era. For instance, a YouTube video can "go viral" and receive thousands of views in just a few days. There is also the permanence of the Internet and the ease with which images can be copied and circulated, long after the original content is removed.

The shaming tactics used by parents typically involve posting photos or videos of their children to social media sites such as YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram. The content varies; the parent may refer to their child disparagingly or force the child to provide a public confession. One of the more common scenarios shown is that of children receiving embarrassing haircuts in order to humiliate them. The parents, and their supporters, argue that public shaming is an appropriate parenting strategy that teaches the child a lesson and serves to deter future misbehavior.

Long-Term Effects on Identity, Self-Esteem, and Relationships
Media coverage of these shaming incidents is shedding light on the practice and prompting discussions about the harmful effects that result from it. When parents deliberately subject their children to this type of humiliation, it damages the child's self-concept and sense of worth by conveying that something is wrong with the child and that the child is somehow deserving of pain and ill treatment. This can have long-term effects that carry over into adulthood, impacting the individual's identity, self-esteem, and relationships with others.

Debbie Zeichner, LCSW, is a parent coach and certified parent educator in both positive discipline and redirecting children's behavior. She has extensive experience in the areas of positive parenting and social/emotional development, and works with parents through classes, workshops, and individualized coaching to equip them with effective parenting skills. "Shaming," she says, "goes to the core of someone's sense of self and confidence. It leads to resentment and a lack of trust." Parents who resort to this approach risk damaging the relationship they have with their child by creating hostility and distance. In addition to feeing humiliated and demoralized, the child also has to struggle with feeling emotionally betrayed by someone they should be able to trust and rely on for protection, safety, and security.

Zeichner's positive parenting approach draws on the theories of Alfred Adler and Rudolf Dreikurs, and the theme that a misbehaving child is a discouraged child. This is the time when a child needs to be encouraged and lifted up, not shamed, humiliated, and put down. She explains that public shaming through social media fails to motivate the type of behavior that parents actually wants to see in their children in the long run, because the punishment itself becomes the focus. It doesn't provide the child with support or equip the child with appropriate skills and resources to behave differently or reach a different outcome in future. If there is indeed a larger lesson which the parent is trying to teach the child, it is lost amidst the punishment and the accompanying shame and humiliation that the child is forced to deal with.

Zeichner points out that there is a very clear distinction between online shaming as a form of punishment in contrast to healthy, constructive discipline. Punishment puts the focus on the past; it doesn't promote problem solving or actively provide any tools for future decision-making. Discipline, on the other hand, has a future focus; it's about teaching, guiding, and providing the tools and support for a child to learn and grow.

Connection Before Correction: Modeling Empathy
When parents use shaming to punish their children, they put a spotlight on the child's behavior at the expense of the relationship. This is counterproductive, because the extent to which the child feels connected in the relationship will have a significant impact on the child's behavior and well-being overall. In short, children do better when they feel better, and a strong connection is essential to this. With connection comes a sense of trust, safety, openness, and receptiveness—hence the value in connection before correction.

A critical element in forming a connection is empathy. To show empathy is to show awareness, understanding, and sensitivity to what someone else is thinking, feeling, and experiencing. It's the ability to put one's self in someone else's shoes in order to understand what they're going through. When a parent chooses connection before correction, the parent is modeling empathy by seeking to understand and validate what the child is experiencing. Zeichner makes the comparison to an adult sharing about a challenging day or event, who wants to feel listened to, understood, and cared for. "We all long to feel a sense of connection and a sense of belonging, and we all want to feel understood," she says. Addressing this need for connection first makes it much easier to address behavior issues effectively; and it increases the likelihood that the child will grow up to be an empathetic adult.

External vs. Internal Motivation
An episode of parental shaming may motivate a child to refrain from repeating a particular behavior in future. However, the problem with this approach is that the motivation for the child's future behavior is external and fear-based, a desire to avoid punishment. There is no insight or self-awareness, and no problem-solving skills involved—all of which are tools that help a child to navigate new situations successfully. While this approach may appear to effectively address behavior issues in the short term, it doesn't contribute to the child's internal sense of responsibility and motivation. Rather than developing the ability to reflect, assess, and exercise judgment based on personal goals, beliefs, and values, the child is trained to look solely at the risk of getting caught and incurring punishment.

This scenario can become increasingly problematic as children get older. For instance, a teen may engage in high-risk behavior if he feels he can get away with it. Difficulties can arise when the fear of punishment, which has been the primary motivator, is no longer present.

Increasing Awareness and Understanding of Child Development
An increased awareness and understanding of child development and children's social and emotional needs will lead to more informed and effective interactions with children in a variety of capacities, including parenting. Social policy, social service programs, and the education system all have a role to play in promoting this awareness and understanding. Initiatives like Strengthening Families, developed by the Center for the Study of Social Policy, contribute to this by allowing parents to increase their knowledge of child development while learning positive discipline techniques and parenting skills. Schools are also getting on board as they incorporate more social and emotional learning into the classroom.

Change of any sort is challenging. Parenting approaches are often deeply engrained, making it even more difficult to adopt new parenting techniques and alternative discipline strategies. This is especially true when parents are being shown techniques and strategies that differ substantially from how they were raised. "Parents typically parent in the same way that they were parented," Zeichner explains, "and it's easiest to continue doing what you've always done." Parents need to focus on being more aware, less reactive, and consciously responding to their children's behavior and needs—without resorting to extreme and ineffective strategies such as online shaming. "There's often more to a child's behavior than meets the eye," Zeichner says, "and it behooves us to dig deeper to determine what's going on and how we can address each child's needs effectively."

— Susan A. Knight works with organizations in the social services sector to help them get the most out of their client management software.