Not only is spanking ineffective when it comes to disciplining children, it can actually lead to everything from mental health problems to aggression. That's according to a new study published in the Journal of Family Psychology in which researchers looked at 50 years of prior research on nearly 161,000 children. "The upshot of the study is that spanking increases the likelihood of a wide variety of undesired outcomes for children," the study's coauthor says in a press release. "Spanking thus does the opposite of what parents usually want it to do." Those undesired outcomes are the same ones seen with child abuse, including cognitive difficulties and antisocial behavior.
"We as a society think of spanking and physical abuse as distinct behaviors," says one researcher. But "spanking is linked with the same negative child outcomes as abuse, just to a slightly lesser degree." Still, the practice appears to be widespread. A survey in 2002 showed nearly 80% of US preschoolers were spanked, Mic reports, a stat consistent with international numbers from UNICEF in 2014. And, according to NBC News, a 2013 poll found 81% of Americans think spanking—"technically legal" in all 50 states—is "sometimes appropriate." Researchers argue that spanking continues not because it's effective but because children who are spanked grow up to become parents who spank. (The pope says it's OK to spank children, but he's got some conditions.)