Social media has dramatically changed the way many parents raise and reprimand their children. With more parents actively participating in the ubiquitous world of online social networks, an increasing number are using it as a platform to publicly shame and punish their children. What can families and social workers do to address this growing issue?
Social media shaming typically takes the form of parents posting humiliating photos or videos, in which the child may or may not be a participant, to social media platforms such as Facebook, YouTube and Instagram.
The privacy settings of these websites can limit the viewing audience, but the posts will often find their way into public forums. In some cases, they end up going viral and capturing the attention of major news outlets, like when a mother wrote a Facebook post shaming her son for being a school bully, and another chastised her 13-year-old daughter for posing on Facebook as a 19-year-old.
Does naming and shaming on social media ever improve the child’s behavior? What are the short and long-term consequences? And how can social workers help families navigate this controversial area?
The Roots of Social Shaming
According to educator Sara Au and child psychologist Peter L. Stavinoha for Psychology Today, most acts of social shaming are an effort to raise their child’s consciousness of the potential consequences of their actions.
Where does it come from?
As psychologists Robin Grille and Beth Macgregor at The Natural Child Project point out, parents will often do to their children what was done to them.
Those who have forgotten the pain of being shamed by their parents may not understand the effects shaming could have on their own children. They may not grasp the emotional impact of their actions or how it could lead to long-term ramifications.
The Results of Social Shaming
Among psychologists and parenting experts, the general consensus is that such actions tend to do more harm than good.
Sometimes the results can be devastating, like when a 13-year-old girl committed suicide after her father cut off her hair for misbehavior and shot a video of the results. More often, though, the consequences take longer to unfold and can be harder to pin down.
Family psychologist Dr. Gail Gross warns that publicly shaming children can violate their trust in their parents. This can lead to permanent lifelong problems, with Dr. Gross pointing out that our adult relationships are influenced by early childhood patterns.
It can place undue stress on the developing brain, in some cases leading to post-traumatic stress disorder. A Social Work Today interview with parenting coach and educator Debbie Zeichner states that shaming has the potential to damage a child’s self-confidence and sense of worth, instilling in them the belief that they are deserving of ill treatment.
It can also make the child a target of bullies – and when it takes place on a website that has worldwide exposure, that bullying can come from anyone and anywhere.
It’s also worth remembering that anything posted on the internet can be difficult, if not impossible, to delete, intensifying the impact of the original shaming many times over.
Parents need to consider how this content might negatively impact their child’s future, from educational opportunities to career advancement.
How Can Families and Social Workers Address This Issue?
Shaming on social media is often a last-ditch effort at discipline by parents who feel they have exhausted all other avenues for stopping bad behavior.
According to Zeichner, a big part of the solution is helping parents draw a distinction between punishment-focused shaming and healthy, constructive discipline. The latter must involve the parent being able to demonstrate empathy – that is, actively seeking to understand and validate what the child is experiencing.
Instead of posting scathing reprimands on social media, parents should sit down with their children and try to empathize and understand the causes of this behavior. Another important distinction that social workers and psychologists can help draw is the difference between external and internal motivation.
External motivation is when the child avoids behaving badly simply because they are afraid of being punished – a deterrent that becomes less effective as the child grows older and more independent, and can ultimately lead to high-risk behavior.
Internal motivation, on the other hand, is about teaching the child how to self-regulate their behavior through reflecting, assessing and exercising their own judgment based on personal goals, beliefs and values.
When counseling families impacted by social media shaming, social workers and psychologists need to help parents and children understand internal motivation and how they can reset their own behavior.
It’s worth keeping in mind that parenting is a marathon, not a sprint, and what children need most is guidance from their parents on how to solve problems and navigate life – rather than constant focus on the times they stepped out of line.
Social workers play an important role in helping parents work through these modern issues. Invest in your own education and keep up to date with an advanced degree.